Wednesday 28 April 2010

Fargo (1996)

Director: Joel Coen
Stars: Frances McDormand, William H Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell and Peter Stormare
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I couldn't help but have doubts about Fargo when I caught up with it in 2005. Wherever I looked, it was consistently rated above all the other Coen Brothers movies which, I should add, include a couple of my favourite films, and it would have to really pull out the stops to warrant its place on top of the Coen pedestal. It isn't just the fans who raved about it as Roger Ebert said, 'Films like Fargo are why I love the movies.' It has the honour of being the most recently made film to reach the AFI's original list of the Top 100 American films of all time. It won two Oscars: Best Actress for Frances McDormand and Best Screenplay for the Coens themselves. It swept the Independent Spirit Awards, winning for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress and Cinematography, thus ensuring that three of my favourite modern indies, Dead Man, Lone Star and The Whole Wide World, won nothing between them. Sling Blade had to make do with Best First Feature.

In short, it had acquired a major reputation and I'd been looking forward to seeing it for years, but then I watched Miller's Crossing, the other Coen Brothers movie that gets raved about everywhere I look and to say I was seriously disappointed with that film is an understatement. Not everything they make is a classic but they have a rather enviable track record, with Miller's Crossing standing out as the exception in my book, the least worthy of the many IMDb Top 250 films I've seen to be in that list. Fortunately to my fan's eyes, however, Fargo lived up to all the hype and I understand every one of the accolades heaped upon it. It's joyous even from the start as the minimalistic credits unfold against what looks like a sky or just a pastel background but subtly, oh so subtly, we're let in on the reality. It's really a snowstorm in Fargo, North Dakota, with a complete absence of the horizon that I now watch for in all John Ford movies.

By the time we see anything other than bleak countryside and a car on its way to a remote bar called the King of Clubs, there's ice hockey on the TV, country music on the jukebox and the notable pairing of actors Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare looking very out of place. The driver is Jerry Lundegaard, a car dealer and apparently not a particularly good one. He's just as bad at managing his finances and so he needs a really large sum of money really badly for reasons we are never truly let in on. He doesn't want to talk about it, but his current efforts to conjure up this money are failing miserably. He's borrowing against cars that don't exist and running out of explanations, yet his rich father-in-law refuses to pony up the cash, even for decent real estate ventures that he's otherwise interested in. In fact Lundegaard is doing so badly at raising the money that he decides to take things a step further and hire a couple of thugs to kidnap his wife.

Needless to say, Buscemi and Stormare are playing the thugs, named Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud respectively, to which parts they're admirably suited. Buscemi is a Coen regular and they wrote the part specifically for him, so he gets to bitch about everything just like he did in Reservoir Dogs and indeed most films that he's appeared in, and Stormare gets to look as big and menacing as he usually does when anyone needs a big menacing Russian. One great scene has the pair driving into the Twin Cities so the talkative Showalter can attempt conversation with a rather stubbornly silent Grumsrud. The kidnap is a pretty good idea as Lundegaard's ideas go, as he can put a down payment on the deed with a new car off his lot and follow up with $40,000 of the ransom once his father-in-law coughs it up, but like everything else he touches, it goes horribly wrong and a simple kidnap becomes a triple murder, one of the victims being a state trooper.

They do manage to get away with Jean Lundegaard, though she bites Grimsrud and falls down the stairs trying to escape, while wrapped in a shower curtain no less. What's worse, Showalter doesn't put any tags on the new car and so gets stopped on the road with a noisy kidnap victim in the back seat. The state trooper doesn't even have the common decency to be bribed, so Grimsrud shoots him in the head, then follows up with a young couple who turn up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately Lundegaard is played by William H Macy, who floundered wonderfully in Mystery Men and Pleasantville and he flounders to perfection here too, always trying to conjure up a way out of each mess but failing miserably. After two readings he was so sure that he was the right man for the job that he flew to New York to tell the Coens that, 'Guys, I don't mean to be pushy, but I'm not leaving until I get the role. If I have to kill your pets, I'll do it.'
Needless to say he was kidding, but there's dedication for you. All three of these actors have parts larger than usual supporting roles but smaller than true leads, as befits what is really a superbly selected and managed ensemble cast. The most important character doesn't even appear for over a third of the movie and she comes in when Showalter and Grimsrud make a complete mess out of what should be just a simple job, covering up the kidnapping with murder, and then covering up the murder with more murder. It's almost scary to think about all the good things to say about this film before she first appears, only for it to get even better from there on out. She's Marge Gunderson, the police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota, played by director Joel Coen's real life wife Frances McDormand, and just as Fargo itself could be defined as the anti-CSI: Miami, Marge Gunderson is the anti-Horatio Caine. For that reason alone, this is delicious.

CSI: Miami is the Baywatch of TV crime shows, full of rich and glamorous people spending their fortunes amidst the sun and sand of southern Florida, the only difference being that they also commit gruesome crimes every episode. Every cop drives a Hummer and every suspect is a barely dressed girl with a model's physique. Every camera shot is accompanied by stylish MTV video effects and every investigation has the latest glossy technology to back it up. Every line of dialogue is dripping with coolness and every fundamental law of nature is considered optional. The show is personified by its lead character, Horatio Caine, as played by David Caruso, whose every word is tailored to drive home his coolness and who is favoured so much by the sun that it's conveniently right behind him at the perfect angle for him to pose against in his expensive sunglasses. It's so cheesy that I got embarrassed watching it and gave it up as a bad job.

Fargo is the precise opposite of everything that CSI: Miami stands for. The story unfolds against a bleak white Minnesota landscape, never without snow but almost always without a horizon. Instead of Miami's plethora of ├╝berwealthy hip hop stars, playboys and drug dealers, Brainerd is known only for being home to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, who both appear on the city's police department seal. Everything that's native unfolds at a polite pace, only the crooks full of foul language and barely contained anger. Horatio Caine would explode if he wasn't impeccably dressed and carefully posed for every shot, but Marge Gunderson is seven months pregnant and watching out for morning sickness. She has no space age technology to aid her, just wits and perseverence, both of which she has in down home abundance. Deceptively calm and cheerful, she's the only character in this dance of ineptitude who doesn't seem to be an idiot.

To underline how far away from anything we're used to this is, every native character speaks in a musical midwest accent with its roots in Swedish. While the first instinct of many may be to laugh at what they see as bad Bob & Doug McKenzie impressions, it's ultimately as refreshing as you could comfortably imagine. It's wonderful to hear people speaking in what appears to be a different language though at the same time one so much closer to English than gangland jive that it doesn't seem strange at all. Like Marge, the folk in Brainerd are all optimistically cheerful and eager to help out and the impression is that they'd be just as eager if this wasn't a multiple homicide. However just because everyone exhibits all the tendencies of Minnesota Nice, that doesn't mean they're always entirely helpful. Most of the people in the film are idiots, however well meaning, which makes the policework almost surreal to anyone used to the TV crime shows.

I don't know how many episodes of Cold Case I've seen where witnesses remember that one crucial detail from fifty years earlier that enables the cops to find their killer. Here, Shep Proudfoot, the ex-con who puts Lundegaard in touch with the kidnappers, only seems able to give one word answers. A couple of hookers are eager to help identify their clients from the previous night but can't give any better description of Steve Buscemi than 'kinda funny looking'. When a bartender finds he can add to the description, it's just to say 'in a general kinda way.' Regardless, Marge waddles around like a penguin quietly figuring things out without a single pose or adjustment of her sunglasses. It's thoroughly reassuring to know that even when the police chief is a pregnant woman with a husband whose chief interest is getting one of his duck paintings onto a US stamp, the job still gets done. I don't get that confidence from CSI: Miami.
You can be sure that you're onto a winner when the worst thing about the film is the fact that the title is rather misleading, the story only beginning in the town of Fargo and proceeding quickly onto Brainerd with scenes in Minneapolis and Bismarck. Even the various real life crimes that influenced the script took place elsewhere. The main inspiration was the murder of Helle Crafts by her husband in Connecticut, who disposed of the body through use of a woodchipper, but there are also inspirations from Minnesota crimes, the Coens being natives of St Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. The Lundegaard story comes from that of Eugene Thompson, a lawyer who hired an inept crook to kill his wife who subcontracted the hit without his knowledge. The kidnapping angle was sourced from Virginia Piper, a banker's wife who was ransomed for a million dollars, but though the crooks were caught and convicted, only $4,000 was recovered.

The other way you know you have a peach of a movie is when you can't think of anything bad to say about it. I've had problems with many classics, admittedly minor problems but ones large enough to drop them a notch in my estimation. I'm sure there are flaws here, but I'm not seeing them. All I'm seeing is more admirable detail every time I watch the film, especially in the depth that's given to the characters, even those who don't get a lot of screen time. McDormand and Macy give masterclass performances but they get plenty of opportunity to shine. Buscemi plays a more regular character for him but does so with panache. Stormare, on the other hand, is saddled with a character whose depth lies mostly in the fact that he doesn't have any, being cold blooded enough to stoop to use of a woodchipper. He manages to reinforce his character through silence, obstinance and stubbornness, even while waiting for his partner to fix the TV.

I've watched the film a few times since 2005 and I'm enjoying the shorter performances more and more. Kristin Rudr├╝d is a dynamic Jean Lundegaard, always doing something, apparently unable to sit still. She can't stop even when she's been effectively blinded, trying to escape from her kidnappers while wrapped in a shower curtain or when tied up and hooded. Harve Presnell plays Wade Gustafson, her father, who is a self made millionaire and revels in it. When it's his money that Lundegaard wants to pay the ransom on his daughter with, he'll damn well deliver it himself. 'It's my show,' he says and he means it. He's so driven that he watches ice hockey with a stress ball in his hand. There's also a deceptively sinister interlude with a character named Mike Yanagita, who went to school with Marge and reconnects with her after seeing her on TV.

All these and more are little stories within the big story, which rudely intrudes on the peaceful lives of these Minnesota Nice folks with violence and profanity. The impression is that they'e so laid back that the severity and brutality of the situation is so far beyond their frame of reference that they automatically lessen it in their minds. This is no south central LA with a violent crime every five minutes, this is rural Minnesota where we might expect the height of excitement in any random week to be someone breaking down in a snowdrift or getting too drunk and having to be hauled out of a bar some night. The crimes that populate this story are as out of place in such an environment as the film itself is in a busy crime thriller genre on film and TV, and so just as noteworthy. I have a feeling that even if Fargo hadn't been any good, it would have still been a breath of fresh air. The fact that it's a work of cinematic genius is merely icing on the cake.

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