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Fargo: Special Edition

MGM Home Video

Starring William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi,
and Peter Stormare

Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Directed by Joel Coen

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Those who love the films of Joel and Ethan Coen do so with such fervor that it's difficult to imagine how anyone could not share their adoration. But the unfortunate truth is that the brothers' work just doesn't appeal to everyone. Their characters are a mass of oddities and contradictions, their humor is so sly as to be almost transparent, and that love of Grand Guignol violence … it's just not everyone's cup of tea. It also complicates matters for viewers that the Coens' movies include so many diverse references — an ability to appreciate cinematic asides alluding to the likes of James M. Cain, Billy Wilder, and Nathaniel West is helpful, but not necessary to Coen appreciation.

Fargo (1996) is possibly the brothers' most accessible film, and the one that pulled them more fully into the public eye, appealing to mass audiences as well as critics. The snowbound noir homage won Academy Awards for star Frances McDormand and for the Coens' screenplay, as well as the BAFTA David Lean Award for Directing, the Best Director award at Cannes, and a slew of other honors from film critics' societies. It's listed as one of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films. But despite that pedigree, it can be appreciated on a pure popcorn-munching level as a crackerjack dark comedy about a kidnapping that goes horribly awry and the competent small-town cop who cracks the case.

The plot is slim — a weaselly Minnesota car salesman named Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is desperate to come up with a lot of cash to save himself from self-imposed financial ruin. So he hires a motley duo of ne'er-do-wells (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so he can bleed his rich, obnoxious father-in-law (Harve Presnell) for the ransom, promising the pair a cut of the loot and a new car. But the plan goes very badly, very quickly, while the local sheriff, Marge Gunderson (McDormand), pieces together the crime as Jerry becomes more and more frantic to cover it up.

On that slender thread of story the Coens have hung a wealth of detail, exploring the mundane aspects of Midwestern life and giving each character a rich backstory and a lot of quirks. The very pregnant Marge patiently pursues Jerry while taking time to tend to her husband, Norm "Son of a" Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch), a placid bear who brings her sack lunches when not working on his duck paintings. The increasingly manic Jerry could be any of a hundred men we pass on the street each day, working in a tiny, wood-paneled office decorated with funny golf paraphernalia. And Buscemi's kidnapper is a hyper nutball who gets increasingly fed up with his taciturn partner, finally losing it when it's suggested they split the new car between them — "How the fuck do you split a car, you dummy? With a fucking chainsaw?" — leading to yet another unforeseen moment of violence.

The genius of Fargo is in these details and in the compassion the Coens have for their very ordinary characters. There is violence and death and bloody consequences a-plenty in the film, but, unlike most modern Hollywood pictures, there's not really a villain to point at, and no perfect evil to blame. Fargo's story most closely resembles the work of pulp authors like Cain, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford, who wrote tales of ordinary men whose own greed or weaknesses cause them to set off a chain of events that quickly grows beyond their control — it's a theme the Coens had already explored with Blood Simple (1990) and would revisit in 2001 with The Man Who Wasn't There. Jerry, the beleaguered sap who sets all of Fargo's mayhem in motion, is the smallest of small-time crooks — beaten down by his bullying father-in-law, he gets in over his head embezzling money from the car dealership. Then he gets the bright idea to stage the kidnapping, genuinely believing that no harm will come from the action. The worse things get for him, the more he lies and schemes to cover his tracks — he's simply not smart enough to think his way out of his predicament, nor does he have the strength of character to own up to his wrongdoing. As horrible as the events in Fargo are, Jerry's still a character that inspires pity as we watch the noose around his neck tighten with each misstep. It's left to Marge to sum it all up when she finally nabs her man: "There's more to life than a little bit of money, you know. Don't ya know that? I just don't understand it."

*          *          *

MGM Home Entertainment's "Special Edition" release of Fargo is an upgrade from their previous bare-bones, non-anamorphic disc, offering a very clean, very bright 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer (a full-frame transfer is offered on Side Two.) It's virtually flaw-free, with crisp detail, doing justice to Roger Deakins' amazing cinematography. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (upgrading the Dolby 2.0 Surround on the previous release) is excellent — Fargo is hardly a sound-effects-heavy film, but Carter Burwell's lovely, subtle score is worth hearing, and it never has to compete with dialogue here. The real treat for Coen fans is the addition of commentaries and extras on this disc. The audio commentary featuring cinematographer Deakins isn't the fun-filled yack-fest one would hope for from the brothers themselves, but it's heavy with technical details. Much more fun is a trivia track, which offers factoids about the film and the actors, "pop-up video" style, as you watch the film. The featurette "Minnesota Nice" (30 min.) is one of the funniest, most good-natured, and just plain entertaining behind-the-scenes extras you'll find on a DVD. Discussing the concept of "Minnesota nice" — that constant, bred-to-the bone politeness that the Coens grew up with in Minneapolis, they remark, "Polite cultures are usually the most repressed, and therefore the most violent." There's also a clip from the Charlie Rose Show featuring an unprepossessing McDormand with the Coens, all three unaware of the huge reception their little film would soon get. Also on board is an American Cinematographer article about Deakins, a photo gallery, the film's trailer, and TV spots. And there's Easter eggs, too.

— Dawn Taylor

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