Fox // 1996 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // April 23rd, 2014
"For Pete's sake, he's fleeing the interview!"
Filmmaker siblings Joel and Ethan Coen have earned a spot in the upper echelon of American cinema with critically acclaimed titles like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and last year's Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens' collaboration began in the '80s, but it was their 1996 film Fargo that brought them mainstream success. The Midwest murder mystery may have been small, but its impact is huge.
Fargo is the "true story" of bumbling used car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who gets into financial trouble and hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd) so he can collect ransom money paid by his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell). The plan goes off the rails immediately, turning into a homicide investigation led by pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).
Fargo is a simple tale told perfectly. If you break it down there's not much to the story. There's no mystery to the who or the why. The investigation doesn't have twists and turns. There are shocking moments, but they are shocking mostly because they contrast with the easygoing politeness of Midwestern life. We get hints at the circumstances behind Jerry's desperation, but whether the loan fraud or real estate deal came first the Coens don't tell us and Jerry's not interested in discussing personal matters. We know he needs money. We know he doesn't have the respect of his customers, employees, or his father-in-law. We know he's willing to risk his wife's well-being to prove he's a bigger shot than he really is. The film's disastrous events are put in motion because his chipper "Minnesota nice" mask hides a small man who feels cornered.
Contrast Jerry and his hired thugs with Marge Gunderson. She is as contented in her life as Jerry is disgruntled, as competent as he is inept, as laid-back as he is frantic. Most murder mystery films feature a lead detective driven by demons, forgoing sleep and family to solve the case. Marge is damn good at her job, but she's just as good at having a life. By day, she examines evidence and follows leads, but by night she watches TV in bed with her husband Norm. In Marge's world, there's always time to pick up a bag of nightcrawlers on the way to the lunch buffet. She is part of the Minnesota landscape, the product of a slow-paced but sharp-witted culture that believes in manners and basic goodness. It's a place where people say "yah" not "nah." A place where the Marges thrive and live to see another "beautiful day."
Fargo claims to be based on a "true story." It's not. (Although Joel and Ethan Coen had a lot of fun at the time insisting it was.) Bits and pieces of the crimes come from real stories, but the bizarre way it all fits together is all Coens. If it seems real, it's because the filmmakers know the area well, having grown up outside of Minneapolis. They present the tale as fact to bring the audience into the fiction. It's a clever hook, and it resonates all the more in a modern Hollywood world obsessed with adaptations and true stories. Fargo works because it's been carefully crafted by writers who understand character and pacing. Its "truth" isn't a crutch supporting bad storytelling.
Fargo is one of the best examples of an indie film achieving mainstream success. Its popularity was as big a surprise to the people who made it as Hollywood in general. It came into the Academy Awards as an underdog and walked away with a Best Actress award for McDormand and a Best Original Screenplay for the Coens. In the years since, Hollywood has come around on indie films, going so far as to manufacture "small" movies for mass audiences. These films are brimming with quirky characters and give audiences the chance to feel smart while feeding the studio marketing machine. Fargo still works because it is a great movie made by passionate, hungry people. It wasn't manufactured to play the dark horse in award shows. It earned its acclaim and audience honestly, which I guess makes it a true story after all.
Fargo's 2009 Blu-ray release got mostly high marks for clarity when compared to its DVD incarnations, but that sharpness came at the price of uneven grain and heavy edge enhancement. This newly "remastered" transfer is better in every way. As part of MGM's 90th anniversary campaign, Fargo is the latest catalog title to get a new 4K scan. The result is a more natural image, with as much if not more detail and less-pronounced grain. There are still a few noisy scenes -- Marge's visit to the first crime scene is especially grainy -- but it's true to the source and they all look cleaner than the previous Blu-ray. The new image is softer than the old one, but it's much less harsh. A few crazy people might prefer the over-sharpened 2009 Blu-ray, but this remaster is a clear improvement.
The remastered image is reason enough to double dip on hi-def Fargo, which is good because there are no other reasons to upgrade. Everything else on the disc is identical to the 2009 release, including the still-excellent 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, menu art, and bonus features all ported over from the Special Edition DVD:
* Audio commentary with cinematographer Roger A. Deakins: The Coen's longtime DP offers a unique look into the filmmaking process in this sparse but insightful commentary.
* "Minnesota Nice" (27:47): A fun and fascinating making-of featurette with participation by all the major players.
* American Cinematographer article about Deakins' work on the film.
* Trivia Track
* Photo Gallery
Between the Coens' impressive recent output and the fact the film has seen so many home video releases, it would be easy to ignore Fargo's latest appearance on Blu-ray. Don't. Not only is the film as fresh and funny as ever, but MGM has done right by the format with a gorgeous new transfer. The lack of new audio mix and bonus features is troubling (suggesting Fargo's home video journey is far from over), but the remastered image is well worth the upgrade.
"What if something goes wrong, dad?" It hasn't. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Trivia Track
* PDF Article