RogerBW's Blog

Fargo 31 May 2022

1996 crime drama/black comedy, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand: IMDb / allmovie. Jerry just wants his wife kidnapped so that her rich father will pay a ransom, that he'll then split with the kidnappers. But subcontracting crime rarely pays.

All right, I'm a convert – even if people say this is the high point of Coen Brothers film so everything else will be less great. It's not just that the individual acting is good; it's that it all comes together and even actors who can half-arse it at other times produce sterling performances here.

McDormand not only looks very different from when I last saw her twelve years earlier in Blood Simple, she's shifted from "beautiful with character" to "characterful and beautiful", and as a result she's much more interesting to watch. Her character Marge Gunderson doesn't even show up until half an hour in to this 94-minute film, and she doesn't get a huge share of screen time even after that; most of what she does is routine police work. And yet she's very much the anchor of the story, even as she comes home at the end to be emotional support for her antsy husband rather than talk about the horrible day she's had.

Of course we also get William H. Macy playing the vile car salesman to perfection; we never find out how he got into debt in the first place, and it doesn't matter, because if it hadn't been one thing it would have been another. His entire self-image is built on being able to persuade people of things, and he's very bad at it, but he still never has a backup plan for what happens if that fails.

And Steve Buscemi, doing the motormouth act that's already his standard (two years before Armageddon), but rather than being the sensible thief we saw in Reservoir Dogs the character has clearly bought into his own image, failing to make preparations and living in the moment. What would with a lesser director have been the core of the film is the double-act with Peter Stormare, who retains an utter deadpan even at the moment when he's caught dead to rights shoving a severed leg into a woodchipper (with a balk, of course, he's not stupid). His Gaear has thought things through in a way that Buscemi's Carl hasn't: this traffic stop has gone bad, and it's going to end badly, so I'll shoot the patrolman now rather than giving him time to back off and call for help and all that other stuff before I shoot him anyway. We have witnesses, so we'll have to shoot them too. I picture someone asking him in prison whether he enjoys what he does, and him utterly failing to understand the question.

That traffic stop scene, though, and what follows – it's beautiful, from the bar of reflected light across Carl's face through each shot's composition and the way they're strung together. I think this may be one of my favourite cinematic sequences purely in visual terms.

The Scandinavian-influenced Minnesota setting is largely alien to me, as I suspect it is to many Americans, but I do appreciate the way that what might be sprawling vistas are compressed by the snow into little isolated claustrophobic pockets of space.

I realised while watching this that The English Patient, the previous film I watched for Ribbon of Memes, wants me to wallow in the tragedy, to be a ghoulish spectator enjoying bad things happening to people. And this isn't like that: I care, at least a bit, about what happens to everyone, even the thoroughly unsympathetic characters, in a way I didn't in that other film.

Even the score does its job of setting the scene without getting in the way. I don't want every film I watch to be just like this one, but my word it does get an awful lot right.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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