Thursday, January 9, 2014

Watch This: Fargo

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Fargo (1996)
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

As those of us in colder climes recover from the wind, snow, and frigid sub-zero temperatures that blanketed much of North America earlier this week, it's worth looking back at one of cinema's most memorable depictions of winter bleakness, the Coen brothers' incomparable crime thriller Fargo.

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), in desperate need of money for a business deal, hires two third-rate criminals to kidnap his wife in exchange for a split of the ransom money, which will be paid by Lundegaard's wealthy father-in-law.  Things go wrong almost from the very start.  The two bumbling criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (portrayed by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, respectively), struggle to subdue Lundegaard's wife, and their troubles escalate after a few unanticipated murders along a lonely stretch of Minnesota highway.

It is at this point, relatively deep into the film, that we first meet Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in an Oscar-winning performance).  Marge is awakened early in the morning by a phone call notifying her of the murders, which have taken place in her jurisdiction of Brainerd, Minnesota (home of Paul Bunyan, as we are reminded by the massive statue that looms over the highway at the edge of town).  Although she is quite pregnant, and needs assistance from her husband to give her patrol car a jump start, we learn quickly upon her arrival at the crime scene that she is a gifted investigator.

As clues lead Marge to Minneapolis and Jerry Lundegaard's car dealership, and Lundegaard's own plans continuously unravel, the plot moves expertly from one unexpected twist to another, with often violent results (even many people who have never the seen the film are familiar with the infamous wood chipper scene).

The vast, unceasing whiteness of the snow-covered Midwestern landscape (captured beautifully by cinematographer Roger Deakins) provides a perfect backdrop to the film's depictions of cold-blooded mayhem, and the unending bleakness seems at times to mock the characters in their bumbling criminal endeavors.  In one of Fargo's most memorable scenes, Showalter buries a case full of money in the snow in front of a roadside wire fence, only to discover that the fence stretches on seemingly to infinity in both directions, with no visible landmarks.  He ends up marking the spot with the comically small windshield scraper that he used to dig the hole.

There is much to applaud in Fargo.  The Coens strike the perfect tonal balance between violence and humor, and the character of Marge adds a welcome dose of genuine warmth, especially in her tender scenes with her husband.  The performances are uniformly brilliant, but McDormand and Macy are particular standouts.  McDormand plays Marge with a disarming cheerfulness that masks her shrewd investigative abilities, and Macy makes the hapless, frustrated Jerry into an object of such great sympathy that one almost forgets he is guilty of kidnapping, double fraud, and a number of other deplorable actions.

Fargo marks the Coen brothers' most masterful chronicle of criminal ineptitude and human folly, but they forayed into similar territory in their under-appreciated 2008 film Burn After Reading, which is available on Blu-ray in the Reeves Memorial Library collection.

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