I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.—Marge Gunderson, Chief of Police, Brainerd, Minnesota
Some films entertain us by poking fun at the familiar in the world around us. Others enlighten by educating us about people, places, and things that were previously unknown. And then there's Fargo, which does it everything backward—it entertains us with the freakish, the regional, and the unfamiliar, while it enlightens us about the all-too-familiar foibles of humanity and Middle Americana that reside in each of us.
Too long relegated to a pair of substandard, featureless, now out-of-print releases from PolyGram and MGM, Fargo at last receives its due in a fine Special Edition DVD from Leo & Company.
Facts of the Case
And I guess that was your accomplice in the woodchipper.
The Judge presumes that by this late date, anyone who's even passably interested in film (which likely includes you, dear Verdict reader) has either seen Fargo or is at least nominally familiar with it. If this is not the case with you, please read Chief Justice Mike Jackson's evaluation of the earlier MGM release before proceeding further here. Although I'll tread carefully around major spoilers, the uninitiated reader will be better served by reviewing Chief Justice Jackson's comments before mine, which presuppose that you already know the movie. Then come back, and we'll chat.
I'm a police officer from up Brainerd investigating some malfeasance, and I was just wondering if you've had any new vehicles stolen off the lot in the past couple of weeks? Specifically a tan Cutlass Ciera?
Marge Gunderson (Oscar-winning Frances McDormand), the third-trimester-pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota, summarizes the pivotal event in Fargo in a single run-on sentence: "Okay, so we got a trooper, pulls someone over…we got a shooting…these folks drive by…there's a high-speed pursuit…ends here…and then this execution-type deal."
But if there was ever a film that proved film critic Roger Ebert's sagacious maxim, "It's not so much what a movie is about, but how it is about it," Fargo is that film. The core plot points of the movie have been done innumerable times before—a kidnapping-for-ransom scheme gone horribly wrong, cold-blooded killers on a murder spree, an implacable detective carefully tracking criminals to bring them to justice—but it's how those elements are woven together by sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen that makes Fargo one of the most unique creations in cinematic history. It is testimony to the singular, nearly unclassifiable nature of the Coens' end product that the American Film Institute lists Fargo as one of the 100 funniest American movies of all time (#93), even though it graphically depicts several gruesome slayings, and contains as its single most memorable image the leg of a murder victim being pulverized in a woodchipper.
The wonder of Fargo is the perceptiveness with which it observes its milieu, a world that seems alien to those of us who have never spent time in the Upper Midwest. For that, one can credit the fact that the Coen Brothers were born and raised in Minnesota and are thus intimately acquainted with its people, their subculture, the peculiarities of their snowbound existence, and the rhythms of their Nordic-influenced speech patterns. But lest the viewer suppose that all there is to the movie is fair-skinned folk of Scandinavian descent who talk funny, it's important to grasp how the Coens use these people as exemplars of the quiet desperation so common to modern industrial society.
Jerry Lundegaard, played with sputtering frustration by the marvelous William H. Macy, is to a certain degree the prototypical contemporary American male—trying furiously to marshal forces that are beyond his control, making things worse with every ill-advised action, and too bullheaded to know when to quit. Jerry is like a character in an old Warner Brothers cartoon who casually flips a snowball down a mountain incline, only to realize that the snowball is growing and plummeting faster second by second toward the peaceful village below, and that he is powerless to halt the inevitable disaster his stupidity has wrought. Macy's furtive glances (does he ever really make eye contact with anyone?) and raw-nerve energy betray the fact that, given a life to live, this guy could never have not screwed it up royally.
Counterbalancing Jerry is Marge Gunderson, who is everything Jerry is not—intelligent, methodical, self-assured, and, most significantly, content with things as they are. She is perfectly happy to be exactly what she is: a small-town cop in the great northern wilderness, the wife of a loveable lug (a warm, understated job by John Carroll Lynch) who fishes all day and paints pictures of ducks for a living, blithely whiling away an existence defined by dining at the local smorgasbord and jump-starting the car in the morning. Unlike her former acquaintance Mike Yanagita (In Living Color's Steve Park), who has apparently spent his entire adult life chasing pipe dreams, Marge not only accepts her lot in life but wholeheartedly embraces it.
Indeed, it is Marge's awkward reunion with Mike that seals Jerry's fate. In Mike, Marge sees Jerry Lundegaard, a man who longs to be anything other than what he is, and willing to resort to any fabrication or quixotic gesture in an attempt to break free the only way he knows how—with money. The lies Mike tells Marge about his career and marriage remind her that people unable to handle reality will try to alter it to suit themselves—exactly what Jerry is doing. The clarity of this insight spurs the rest of Marge's investigation which, having started slowly, accelerates from this point through the remainder of the film.
And then there are Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi's best-ever performance) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), who though they function as independent personages in the narrative, are in reality the yin and yang of Jerry's addled psyche. Carl represents the part of Jerry that simply wants to make a boatload of cash and enjoy its fruits, without really hurting anyone (it is only when that desire is thwarted that Carl succumbs to his violent impulses). Grimsrud is the inner force of nature that impels Jerry to action beyond his limitations, the lust for self-satisfaction that takes what it wants, when it wants, and brooks no opposition. (Grimsrud's famous demands for "pancakes house" and "unguent" illustrate his complete consumption with self.)
The script crafted by the Coens for these characters is almost without fault. Fargo's pacing is languid yet compelling (Marge, ostensibly the protagonist, doesn't even pop in until more than a half-hour into the story). The dialogue, which one can't help repeating for days after seeing the film, is as ear-perfect as anything David Mamet ever wrote, and is deftly delivered by the outstanding cast. Even the minor characters sound and behave exactly as they ought to—Jerry's winsomely shrill and frenetic wife, played by Minnesota native Kristin Rudrüd (Pleasantville), and the two dim-bulb coed hookers (Larissa Kokernot and Reba's Melissa Peterman) Marge interviews after their liaison with Showalter and Grimsrud, never fail to draw chuckles from me. If there is any complaint to be made about the film, it is with the occasionally helter-skelter editing (accomplished by the Coens themselves, using their "Roderick Jaynes" pseudonym) that leaves the viewer wondering at times whether a key scene is missing. (And of course there isn't, because the Coens storyboard and block their films meticulously before the cameras ever roll.)
So you already know the film is first-rate. What about MGM's long-awaited Special Edition DVD, you ask? Well…let's just say it's better than what came before.
The new 1:85:1 anamorphic transfer (there's a pan-and-scan version on the reverse) is an improvement over the earlier MGM rendition, which itself was a quantum leap ahead of the truly awful display on the original PolyGram disc. The new transfer has been struck from a clean, defect-free print (both the earlier versions showed abundant film damage), and exhibits only minuscule amounts of digital duress—mostly random overuse of edge enhancement, especially in scenes with snowy backgrounds. Contrast is ever so slightly fuzzy in a handful of places, but otherwise, this presentation of Fargo is as attractive as the film has ever looked.
A similarly effective Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track supports the shiny new pictures. Fargo is not, as crime thrillers go, a bombastic one, so the major concern is dialogue, which is sharp and distinct here. Carter Burwell's ethereal score affords pretty much the only notable use of the outboard channels.
Coen Brothers aficionados will be disappointed to learn that the CoBros did not lay down an audio commentary for this, one of their signature films. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who (a) frankly admits he hasn't seen the film in years, and (b) appears to have just taken up the Sominex habit, delivers the yak-track. Most of Deakins's remarks relate to the technical aspects of the production—fascinating as far as they go, but lacking somewhat in revelatory insight. You'll learn, however, a good deal of what it's like to toil alongside Joel and Ethan Coen from the man who has photographed eight of their movies, including the upcoming (at this writing) Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. In case you don't get enough of the Deakins magic here, the disc also includes a lengthy text article clipped from American Cinematographer that will surely satisfy your hunger for all things Deakins.
Minnesota Nice is the most notable new extra, a half-hour documentary featurette incorporating both fresh and familiar interview clips from both Coens and several of the film's stars, including Frances McDormand (it's tough to skip out on the promo tour when you're married to the director), William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare. Given the notoriety of the picture in question, I was a trifle surprised that this retrospective, though certainly welcome, wasn't considerably meatier. Many of the anecdotes from Joel and Ethan Coen are comments that have cropped up before in other venues (including the next extra I'll mention). Still, given what we were offered on the previous Fargo discs—a whole lotta nothin'—Minnesota Nice makes a pleasant look back at the making of the movie.
Supplementing the EPK is a 20-minute interview segment from PBS' The Charlie Rose Show that dates back to the time of Fargo's theatrical release. Both Coens and Frances McDormand (see the comment in the preceding paragraph) kick around the conversational Hacky Sack with old Charlie. Once you get past the fact that Rose is an insufferable windbag, he does manage to ask some cogent questions (as opposed to, say, Larry King, who is also an insufferable windbag but routinely asks obvious, poorly-researched questions), and the discussion is lively and informative.
For those that enjoy such folderol—and I'm one—there's a nifty trivia track that serves Pop-Up Video-style tidbits about the film and its sub-Arctic environs. Unlike many such features that throw up a balloon every few minutes, this track maintains a steady barrage of clever morsels from start to finish. I laughed, I cried, I scrolled back to catch the spots that flew past before I finished reading.
Behind-the-scenes photo buffs will delight in the fairly extensive selection of production stills from the Fargo shoot. The supplements wrap up with the film's theatrical trailer and commercial spot, plus a bonus trailer for the Blue Velvet: Special Edition DVD. There's also an alternate menu tossed in as an Easter egg—though it seems to me to defeat the purpose to announce a "hidden" menu on the back of the keep case. "Hidden" in plain sight, I suppose.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You have no call to get snippy with me. I'm just trying to do my job here.
As the foregoing reveals, I enjoy Fargo quite a lot. Which strikes me as rather odd, given that it's one of only three Coen Brothers films I do like. (The others, in case you're curious, are Blood Simple, which is sort of a dry run for the later and better realized Fargo, and The Man Who Wasn't There). I find their out-and-out comedies (e.g., Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy) too obtuse for my taste. The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink are, in my humble (and apparently lonesome, at least around the Verdict) position, unwatchable. Miller's Crossing bored me to tears. So what is it about Fargo that lands it pretty squarely in the center of my list of all-time favorite films?
I think, in part, it's because Fargo is the only Coen Brothers film whose characters I understand. I've never been to Minnesota or North Dakota—I once spent a year in Maine, which bears some similarities—but every one of the quirky folks in this movie resonates with me as a genuine human being. They are like people I know, and are motivated by things that motivate people with whom I'm familiar. Now, I don't—to the best of my knowledge—know any kidnappers or serial murderers, but I understand who these particular individuals are and why they do what they do. They're my neighbors, and probably yours.
Then there's the cast. Marge Gunderson may be one of the two or three best roles ever written for an actress, and Frances McDormand never steps wrong in playing what could have been a stereotypical ethnic caricature. William H. Macy deserved an Oscar statuette (he was nominated) for his faultless portrayal of the unraveling Jerry Lundegaard. Steve Buscemi is excellent here also.
But I truly believe it comes down to the fact that, for once in their career, Joel and Ethan Coen let the film be more about what it's about, and less about how it's about it. For two guys accustomed to swamping their substance with overbearing and pretentious style, they finally decided just to create some people, set them in motion amid a bizarre set of circumstances, and let the story tell itself. It's a beautiful thing. I hope they try the same approach again someday.
But you're sayin'…What're you sayin'?
Fargo is not the greatest film ever made, but it's close. Without question, it is a film unlike any other before or since, with a nonpareil sense of place, an amazing blend of laughter and shock value, and a set of unforgettable characters that will inhabit the minds of film fanatics as long as there are films to be fanatical about. Every serious and casual cineaste should own this sterling presentation, at least until such time as the Coen Brothers themselves see fit to sit down with a microphone and record their own commentary track for a future "Ultimate Edition."
And oh yeah…except for the opening scene, Fargo doesn't take place in Fargo. Wouldn't you know?
I'm not gonna debate you, Jerry. I'm not going to sit here and debate.
Yah, it's good, yah. This new Fargo DVD and everybody associated with it can take off for pancakes house, that's for darn tootin'. Or I'll fix you some eggs. Just don't get any Arby's on me. You betcha, yah.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director of Photography Roger A. Deakins
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