MGM // 1996 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // June 5th, 2009
A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.
Jean Lundegaard: Hi-ya, Hon! Welcome back! How was Fargo?
Jerry Lundegaard: Ya, real good now.
Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, Seabiscuit) is executive sales manager at his father-in-law's (Harve Presnell, Flags of Our Fathers) car dealership in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Lundegaard is in a mess of trouble after submitting fraudulent auto loans to GMAC financing. To solve his problem, he drives out to Fargo, North Dakota and hires Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi, Reservoir Dogs) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare, The Big Lebowski) to kidnap his wife Jean and demand a ransom from her father (he's real well off). The two goons are to receive a brand new burnt umber Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and forty thousand dollars for the job. Lundegaard plans to use the rest of the million-dollar ransom to make things right with GMAC. After the kidnapping, things go terribly wrong in a little Minnesota town called Brainerd. Showalter and Grimsrud murder a cop and two innocent bystanders. Brainerd's very pregnant chief of police, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, Blood Simple), is on the case, using her plain demeanor and common sense approach to police work to uncover the connections between Lundegaard and the two bumbling murderer/kidnappers.
Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Picture because it's the closest the brothers have come to remaking 1996's Fargo, the movie for which they should have been given the Oscar (I enjoyed that year's winner, The English Patient, about as much as Seinfeld's Elaine Benes did). Fargo and No Country for Old Men make a fascinating diptych that traces the philosophical evolution of the Coens. Made before the death of their father (an event that sent the brothers into career doldrums that resulted in the uncharacteristically mediocre Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers), Fargo confronts the deepest, darkest recesses of the human heart (greed, envy, wanton selfishness, kidnapping, and murder) but ultimately casts its lot with hope and renewal. In the movie's final reel, Marge Gunderson castigates the surviving kidnapper (played by Peter Stormare) over the death and suffering he's caused. "There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here you are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it." Marge's prisoner is chastened by her criticism. Not because she's Brainerd's police chief, but because she's a pregnant woman -- her moral authority throughout the picture derives from the new life she is creating. In No Country for Old Men (made after the death of the Coens' father), Sheriff Bell is left similarly nonplussed by the carnage he's witnessed, but hope for new life doesn't await him. The movie replaces Fargo's redemptive undercurrent with unapologetic nihilism: Death awaits us all and there's little use trying to make sense of the twists and turns in our lives. All of this is to say that Fargo is, in many ways, the pinnacle of Coen brothers' career. It is the most Coenesque of all of their films, a perfect summation of the styles and sensibilities that have made them standout auteurs since the 1984 release of Blood Simple.
Throughout their career, the Coen brothers have see-sawed between neo-noir crime stories and surreal comedy. Fargo leans toward the former, but incorporates elements of the latter. The movie's plot is a water-tight crime story in classic noir mode (aside from the fact that it takes place in the snowy wilderness of Minnesota instead of a naked city). Jerry Lundegaard is a common middleclass man in the mold of Double Indemnity's Walter Neff, a regular guy whose greed gets the better of him. From one self-serving misstep, events quickly spiral out of control, ensuring that Lundegaard ends up on the wrong side of the law. The law in this case is the most unlikely of police chiefs: Margie Gunderson, a pregnant woman with a fondness for smorgasbords and an unassuming husband who paints pictures of ducks for postage stamps. Margie is one of the most unlikely heroes in the history of cinema, but I defy anyone not to like her. Her agile mind makes key connections between events and people in the convoluted case, and her plain-spoken demeanor causes Lundegaard to first underestimate her then overreact when he realizes she's on to him. Her common sense approach to both her work and her life make her the moral center of the film, and a hefty moral center she is. Margie is part Detective Columbo, part Atticus Finch -- a profoundly effective mix of disarmingly intelligent police work and pragmatic moral authority.
The movie's comedy is alternately light-hearted and bleak. A car ride soliloquy by the fast-talking Showalter in which he complains endlessly that Grimsrud won't make conversation would be too silly and clichéd for the movie if it weren't followed by a payoff in which the largely silent and physically imposing Grimsrud commits the horrific, cold-blooded crimes that draw Margie into the plot and ensure the downfall of Lundegaard and his hired goons. A scene near the end of the film involving both kidnappers and a wood chipper is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious -- you feel guilty laughing but can't help yourself. Much of the film's humor is centered on the criminals' stupidity. Lundegaard's and the kidnappers' lame-brained blunders would be irritating in most crime films. In Fargo, they're so carefully handled in order to deliver laughs that don't run against the grain of the movie's bleak tone that we accept the characters' bone-headedness as pure realism. Similarly, the characters' Minnesoota accents, their consuming of massive quantities of fast food, their purchases of fishing bait, and enjoyment of polka music should be unbelievably absurd, a poorly sketched Hollywood stereotype of upper Midwestern sensibilities, but the Coens draw their characters with such precision and genuine fondness (for most of them, anyway) that we believe these are real people.
One part unflinching crime epic, one part black comedy, Fargo is gripping entertainment; one of the finest and most important movies of the 1990s, and arguably the summit of the Coen brothers' impressive career thus far.
Like its Midwestern characters, Fargo is without ostentation. It was shot with a minimum of poetic fuss and a maximum of narrative pragmatism. The 1080p AVC transfer has limited depth of field, but foregrounds display the kind of razor sharp focus not obtainable in the limited resolution of DVD. The movie's color scheme is intentionally muted and naturalistic. The Blu-ray delivers accurate colors, deep blacks, and vibrant whites. There are some signs of exceedingly minor flicker during the all-white opening credits sequence, but the source print is otherwise pristine. Grain is fine and beautiful, providing the image a celluloid appearance. Based on the way it was shot, Fargo was never destined to be a reference quality Blu-ray, but it doesn't take eagle eyes to recognize that this high definition presentation easily outstrips the 2003 Special Edition DVD.
The default audio option is a rock solid DTS HD lossless mix. The movie doesn't pack a lot of audio thunder, but dialogue is consistently crystal clear, Carter Burwell's atmospheric score sounds spectacular, and effects like gunshots deliver plenty of pop. Play Fargo at just the right volume and your neighbors will think you're operating a wood chipper in your living room.
When it comes to extras, this Blu-ray release is weak. Everything here -- an audio commentary by cinematographer Roger Deakins, a trivia track, a 28-minute making-of documentary called "Minnesota Nice," a photo gallery, a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, and reprint of an article about Deakins' work in the film from American Cinematographer magazine -- is ported over from the 2003 Special Edition DVD. Missing from that release is Charlie Rose's interview of Joel and Ethan Coen. There are no HD exclusives. Deakins's commentary track is predictably technical, but also casually delivered and informative. Its only flaw is some long gaps of silence. "Minnesota Nice" is an average making-of that doesn't dig very deeply. It's presented in 480p standard definition. The remainder of the supplements is disposable.
Over a decade after it was released, Fargo remains the Coen brothers' most gripping and original drama. The movie is almost Lynchian in its preoccupation with a clash between human depravity and homespun Midwestern values, yet pure Coen brothers. Sadly, this Blu-ray offers even fewer extras than the not-so-special Special Edition DVD of 2003. But the fine transfer makes it worth the relatively low cost of an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Trivia Track