March 29, 1996 in Seven

Testing Normalcy Joel And Ethan Coen Reinvent The True-Crime Movie With ‘Fargo’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

After watching “Fargo,” few of us will again see a wood-chipper in quite the same say.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before discussing a new Coen brothers film, which “Fargo” is, it’s always helpful to reflect on the whole of the Coen, so to speak, oeuvre.

And if there is one main thing that should be kept in mind about the Coens - director Joel, producer Ethan - it’s that the movies they make aren’t necessarily about anything other than the art of making movies.

Whether we’re talking about “Blood Simple” or “The Hudsucker Proxy,” Coen brothers’ movies often are self-regarding exercises whose main intent is to redefine genres - the heist film, say, or the mystery, even the wacky comedy - rather than merely communicate ideas. With the exception of maybe “Barton Fink,” Coen movies are more commentaries on film form than actual films themselves.

You’ve never seen a mobster, for example, handle a tommy gun better than Albert Finney in “Miller’s Crossing.” You’ve never seen a store holdup as manic as the Huggies sequence in “Raising Arizona.” You’ve never seen a more convoluted plot than “Blood Simple.” And why is all this so?

Because even though what they come up with is often brilliant, the Coens tend to emphasize effect over pure contextual meaning.

The Coens aren’t alone in their style of cinematic deconstruction. They have much in common with filmmakers such as David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to name just a few. And like them, the Coens seem to be winking at us between frames: Aren’t we having fun now, they seem to say.

All of which brings us to “Fargo,” another study in cinematic re-invention with the subject this time being the true-crime movie.

The story - ostensibly inspired from a real-life case - involves a Minnesota car salesman named Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) who contracts a couple of hoods (Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife. His plan is to get ransom from his father-in-law (Harve Presnell), pay the hoods a piece and pocket the rest.

But things go wrong, as Murphy’s Law tells us. The hoods, who aren’t all that bright to begin with, foul up badly and leave three bodies in their wake.

And that brings Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) into the picture. As chief of the small town near where the murders take place, Marge takes after the perpetrators with the same stolid sense of equanimity that she brings to the rest of her life.

Which is to say that while she’s in no hurry, she’s not going to give up until her man is in hand. Far from being Columbo, she nevertheless has the same sense of dogged tenacity. And even though seven months pregnant, she’ll confront a sociopath with the same simple enthusiasm as she will a smorgasbord lunch.

“Fargo” (film’s setting switches between Minnesota’s Twin Cities and the North Dakota border) boasts a circuitous plot. And that, unlike say “Blood Simple,” is the film’s weak point. At least a couple of plotlines are never cleared up.

In contrast, the film’s representation of character and place is nigh perfect. From Marge to Jerry,from the hoods to Marge’s husband Norm “Son of a” Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch), from Marge’s obtuse deputies to an irate customer berating Jerry’s sale style, the characters of “Fargo” seem to have just stepped off the lot of, say, “Twin Peaks.”

Instead of Agent Cooper drooling over a piece of cherry pie and a “damned good” cup of coffee, however, we have Marge and Norm smooching over lunch by Arby’s. We have Marge’s deputy meeting her at the triple homicide with a cheery expression and two cups of, yes, coffee. We have characters saying “yah sure” and “you betcha” and “by golly” in semi-Norwegian accents.

The difference is one of degree. While the Coens push the envelope of real behavior up to, and occasionally beyond, the bounds of normalcy, they don’t go very far into Lynch land. Steve Buscemi, after all, is no substitute for Dennis Hopper.

In fact, “Fargo” at heart is an argument in favor of this curious kind of Midwestern conventionality. The world of Marge, for all its cartoonish qualities, represents the kind of safe environment that most of us crave at heart (no matter how we define it). In Marge’s world, there are no triple homicides, there are no weird ex-schoolmates living on lies and woodchippers devour only plant life.

It takes a fine actress to play such a character without resorting to broad caricature, and McDormand (Joel Coen’s wife) is such a performer. The Coens clearly are making a bit of fun at Marge’s expense, but McDormand keeps them from going too far.

The same goes for the rest of the cast, especially stage veteran Macy (who has a recurring role on television’s “E.R.”) and the Swedish actor Stormare, whose character Gaear Grimsrud is capable at any moment of boiling over in sudden fits of murderous rage. As for Buscemi, his character is what we’ve come to expect: snide, not too smart, “funny looking” and, to his detriment, annoying without caring about it.

“Fargo” isn’t to everyone’s tastes. If you don’t like inside jokes, if you prefer clarity to cleverness and if dislike studies of self-destructive people heading for the edge, then this Coen film - and perhaps all Coen films - likely aren’t for you.

Question is, if you do find humor in what the Coens prefer to portray, will you also like “Fargo”? The answer is as simple as Marge Gunderson’s worldview.

Yah sure, by golly, you betcha.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “FARGO” *** 1/2 Location: Lyons Ave. Cinemas Credits: Directed and co-written by Joel Coen, produced and co-written by Ethan Coen, starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare and John Carroll Lynch Running time: 1:38 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Joel and Ethan Coen have made wonderful movies - “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink,” “Raising Arizona.” But “Fargo,” their new one, is in a class by itself. Gruesome yet wildly, surrealistically funny, “Fargo” is the film we’ve been waiting for the Coen brothers to grow into ever since their debut in “Blood Simple.” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: “Fargo” is the best movie ever made in Minnesota. Also the meanest. Jack Mathews/Newsday: When you have dialogue like “You’re darn tootin’,” “You bet” and “Heckuva deal” in a movie about kidnapping, multiple murders and mutilation in the American heartland, you know you’re in a world that could only spring from the minds of David Lynch or the Coen brothers. You’re in luck with “Fargo”: It’s the Coen brothers. Michael Janusonis/Providence Journal-Bulletin: Ethan and Joel Coen’s Fargo is an “almost” kind of film, one of those nearmisses that flirts with brilliance, but winds up just beyond the loop. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film is called “Fargo” even though most of it is set in Minnesota. Apparently the title is about something beyond geography. Testing limits, breaking boundaries, going too far: The Coen brothers’ eclectic films, ranging from the great to the inscrutable, manage to make that their guiding principle and secret weapon. They’re road movies headed for the tricky unknown, and “Fargo” finds the Coens roaming exuberantly across their favorite terrain.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “FARGO” *** 1/2 Location: Lyons Ave. Cinemas Credits: Directed and co-written by Joel Coen, produced and co-written by Ethan Coen, starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare and John Carroll Lynch Running time: 1:38 Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Joel and Ethan Coen have made wonderful movies - “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink,” “Raising Arizona.” But “Fargo,” their new one, is in a class by itself. Gruesome yet wildly, surrealistically funny, “Fargo” is the film we’ve been waiting for the Coen brothers to grow into ever since their debut in “Blood Simple.” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: “Fargo” is the best movie ever made in Minnesota. Also the meanest. Jack Mathews/Newsday: When you have dialogue like “You’re darn tootin’,” “You bet” and “Heckuva deal” in a movie about kidnapping, multiple murders and mutilation in the American heartland, you know you’re in a world that could only spring from the minds of David Lynch or the Coen brothers. You’re in luck with “Fargo”: It’s the Coen brothers. Michael Janusonis/Providence Journal-Bulletin: Ethan and Joel Coen’s Fargo is an “almost” kind of film, one of those nearmisses that flirts with brilliance, but winds up just beyond the loop. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film is called “Fargo” even though most of it is set in Minnesota. Apparently the title is about something beyond geography. Testing limits, breaking boundaries, going too far: The Coen brothers’ eclectic films, ranging from the great to the inscrutable, manage to make that their guiding principle and secret weapon. They’re road movies headed for the tricky unknown, and “Fargo” finds the Coens roaming exuberantly across their favorite terrain.

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