A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.
There are so many things in this world I can’t understand. The popularity of wrestling. Why my wife acts strange and erratic around the same time every month. Any why in the name of all things good and holy the members of the American Film Institute chose Fargo as one of the 100 best American comedies. The Coen Brothers have made many sublimely funny movies, and Fargo does have its funny moments…but a comedy? It’s like calling Pulp Fiction a comedy. Makes absolutely no sense.
Another thing that makes no sense is why MGM has made the slip from an A+ DVD studio to a C- DVD studio, but more on that later.
The latest trend in filmmaking seems to be brothers working together behind the camera. There’s Paul and Chris Weitz, who directed and produced (respectively) American Pie. Larry and Andy Wachowski co-wrote and co-directed both Bound and The Matrix. Peter and Bobby Farrelly have made several of the funniest comedies of the past decade, including Dumb And Dumber, Kingpin, and There’s Something About Mary. But long before any of those upstarts got their feet in the door, there were the brothers Coen, Joel and Ethan. Joel and Ethan Coen have made their way in Hollywood by playing by their own rules, making films where they retain complete control, and crafting their wares according to their own sensibilities. Their work has spanned many genres, from the neo-noir of Blood Simple, to the peculiar slapstick of Raising Arizona (their most commercially successful film), to Prohibition-era gangster film Miller’s Crossing, to my favorite target of a “Simpsons” joke, Barton Fink. Next followed the triumvirate of movies I will be reviewing this week: The Hudsucker Proxy was posted on Tuesday, Fargo is up today, and The Big Lebowski is coming later in the week.
If Raising Arizona was the Coen Brothers’ most successful film financially, Fargo was easily their most successful critically. Peruse the list of awards and nominations for awards it was bestowed. You’ll be scrolling for quite a long time. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two (Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Frances McDormand). It was hailed one of the best films of the year by several leading film critics. It landed at number 84 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Movies list, sandwiched between Oliver Stone’s Platoon and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. That’s a poignant position, considering the film shares a grittily realistic view of violence with one and comedic genius with the other (and if you can’t figure out which is which, you need to get out more).
It’s a matter of some debate whether the Coens are entirely truthful with their blurb at the beginning of Fargo: “THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.” Err, the only problem is, there’s no record of any of these events taking place. No triple-homicide outside of Brainerd. No parking garage shooting in Minneapolis. No wild kidnapping scheme. They’re playing a trick on the viewer. Think about it, and by way of example, consider Saving Private Ryan and Starship Troopers. Both are war tales, both graphically violent, but which one evokes a stronger sense of empathy for the soldiers dying onscreen? The one based on actual events. (Hmm, and I wonder if I’m the first film critic to compare and contrast those two films…) By creating the illusion that the events of Fargo really happened, they subliminally compel the viewer to accept without question the events depicted and to feel for the characters a little more deeply. So, even if you know the truth, I urge you to play along for the film’s sake.
Fargo is a loving (I hope) tribute to the people of Minnesota, where Joel and Ethan grew up. It works in the same was as a roast: you relentlessly poke fun at the target, and then tell them that you love them. The area’s accent, shaped by the Scandinavian immigrants who populated the area, is something of a running gag. It’s quite normal for regional accents to be exaggerated in cinema, but we’re far more accustomed to hearing Southern drawls or Brooklyn tough guys. The Midwestern ideals of hard work, the continual façade of happiness, and emotional reserve are also played up by the story.
The plot is driven by several tightly-written characters, brought to life by some of Hollywood’s finest character actors. William H. Macy (Boogie Nights, Pleasantville) plays Jerry Lundegaard. Jerry is an uptight huckster car salesman, working in his father-in-law’s dealership. He’s in desperate need of money, for what reason we’re not really told (other than he wants the money to purchase land where he can build a parking lot, but even that yarn doesn’t quite ring true). His father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell, Face/Off), is wealthy but generally despises the man his daughter married. So, Jerry hatches the most idiotic plan in cinematic history since Nicole Kidman hired three doped-up teenagers to kill her husband in To Die For. He hires two thugs, Showalter and Grimsrud, played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare (both in Armageddon), to kidnap his wife. The plan is, her father will pay up the ransom, which Jerry will split 50/50 with his conspirators. Seems simple enough, right? Not quite.
After the kidnapping in Minneapolis, Showalter and Grimsrud set off to return to Fargo. En route, a State Trooper stops them near Brainerd because their car does not have license plates. Showalter, the loquacious member of the duo, attempts to talk his way out of the infraction. When it doesn’t appear to work, Grimsrud has no compunctions about executing the trooper, and then killing two people who just happen to be driving by while they’re trying to dispose of the policeman. Enter the local sheriff. Marge Gunderson (Francis McDormand) is a sharp, observant investigator under a sweet, naïve, and very pregnant exterior. She sizes up the murder scene in a matter of minutes, and deftly reconstructs the crime. Minimal clues in hand, she tracks down the murderers.
Like one of my other favorite filmmakers, Tim Burton, the Coens have a very visually-aware style of filmmaking. Often, scenes are filmed from nontraditional angles. Many exterior shots, with the action taking place in the dead of winter, have little or no delineation between the sky and the ground. In their hands, these are not merely showy techniques, but symbolic of the desperation and moral ambiguity of Jerry, Showalter, and Grimsrud. For example, take a look at the scene in chapter 7 that runs between 2:09 and 3:31. Jerry has just left a meeting with Wade and Wade’s financial advisor, where he learned that his father-in-law would not loan him the money for his land purchase. His hopes have been dashed. The scene begins with a pure-white frame, punctuated by small structures and a lone car. We can see that it is a high-angle shot of a snow-covered parking lot. The lone figure of Jerry trudges from the bottom of the frame toward the car. It briefly cuts to Jerry sitting inside the car, as seen from the perspective of someone sitting behind him. Next, we cut to Jerry exiting the car to scrape the ice from his windshield. Furiously he scratches at the ice before flinging his ice scraper away. He pauses, then recovers the scraper, and continues a bit more timidly. Then, another high-angle shot of the car echoes the beginning of the scene. Before we can even see William H. Macy’s face in the third shot of the scene, even if we could not hear Carter Burwell’s melancholy score, we can feel Jerry’s sense of loss and isolation just by the way the scene has been filmed.
The preceding paragraph reminds me that I have not discussed two of the Coen Brothers frequent collaborators who deserve nearly as much credit for the magnificence of Fargo: cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell. Deakins has been the cinematographer of each Coen Brothers movie made since Barton Fink. (As a side note, the cinematographer of their three previous films was Barry Sonnenfeld, who went on to direct the two Addams Family films, Get Shorty, and Men In Black. I won’t hold Wild Wild West against him.) Deakins’ practiced eye has also worked its magic on Sid And Nancy, The Shawshank Redemption, and Martin Scorsese’s epic Kundun (the latter two of which earned him Oscar nominations). He possesses the rare talent to make both close-ups and long shots evocative of the emotions the director wishes the scene to convey. Carter Burwell has scored every Coen Brothers film, with the exception of the upcoming O Brother, Where Art Thou? Since his start with Blood Simple, Burwell has become one of the most fresh and versatile composers in Hollywood., working on films as diverse as It Could Happen To You, Being John Malkovich, and Three Kings, and yet not sounding like he is retreading the same music over and over (*cough* Jerry Goldsmith *cough*).
Fargo was originally released on DVD by Polygram. Polygram’s catalog has since been acquired by MGM. Whether that is a blessing or a curse is a decision that made have to be made by a higher court than this. The original version had a non-anamorphic transfer, Dolby Surround sound, and cast biographies. MGM’s version has an anamorphic transfer, Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, and a theatrical trailer. I suppose we come out ahead in this case, though I am still disappointed in the dearth of extras. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image is generally very clean and impressive. When discussing video transfers, reviewers often mention the black level. With this movie, you have to talk about the white level. The harsh Minnesotan landscape is pure white, without color shifting or loss of detail. Occasional dust motes are visible, but no digital artifacts are to be seen. The remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also impressive. The rear channels are not used frequently or aggressively, though you will notice occasional directional effects when cars go speeding away from the camera. LFE channel use is minimal. I could dock it points for not being showy, but it matches the spartan film perfectly. Again, the only extra is a theatrical trailer. It is a “red-band” trailer, meaning its use was restricted to films rated R. Just why it was restricted I don’t know — too many guns? use of the word “circumcised”? Anyway, it’s presented full-frame with Dolby Surround sound. For most of its running length, it has an upbeat, jazzy score that for all the world sounds like Vince Guaraldi’s music for the Peanuts cartoons. Yet another indication that studio marketing departments have no idea how to sell movies that don’t star Julia Roberts.
I find myself often contradicting myself when it comes to DVD releases. On one hand, I think that a good movie and good audio and video quality is the most important factor in my purchasing decisions. On the other hand, I feel like the studios are cheating me when they don’t include much in the way of extras. MGM has been cranking out some very good catalog titles recently, such as this movie, the Woody Allen Collection, The Princess Bride, and the upcoming Escape From New York. If you pay over $15 for any of them, you’re not shopping hard enough. Even at a low price point, I feel like the consumer is being cheated. Quite a few of the discs haven’t received the anamorphic transfers of Fargo, such as The Princess Bride and Spaceballs. Most of them include the lowest number of extras MGM can get away with, and often they pad the “Special Features” box by claiming the package includes a “collectible booklet.” A single sheet of liner notes is hardly anything worthy of the moniker “collectible.” It’s as ridiculous Seven-11 calling their Simpsons cardboard Big Gulp cups “collectibles.”
So, what are you going to do? Deprive yourself of your favorite movies because the studio doesn’t treat them properly, or grudgingly buy them so at least they’ll be represented in your collection? If my wife hadn’t bought it for me, I wouldn’t own The Princess Bride on the principle of the non-anamorphic transfer and no extras. On the other hand, I’m nuts enough about Fargo that nothing short of a pan-n-scan-only disc would have deterred me from buying it. (Even that didn’t stop me from buying the Canadian version of Heavenly Creatures, but that’s material for another review in itself.)
My last complaint: no English subtitles. That really chaps my hide.
Fargo is a movie for the ages. Most of the drivel that passes through the multiplex will be forgotten in fifty years, but Fargo will remain as one of the greatest movies of the 1990s, if not the entire 20th century. Save your righteous indignation with featureless releases for Disney, and do yourself a favor and pick up this disc.