With the premiere of the intriguing new Fargo limited series, it was inevitable that we’d receive a new Blu-ray version of the modern classic that inspired it. Joel & Ethan Coen‘s Fargo remains one of the high points of their storied career, and while its arrival on Blu-ray has clearly mercenary motivations, it’s no less welcome because of it. Hit the jump for my Fargo Blu-ray review.
The title is intended as a joke, cryptic and a little smug as the Coens’ gags often are. Only the opening scene takes place in the titular North Dakota city. The rest (for better or worse) belongs to Minnesota, whose lethal levels of passive aggression become the film’s signature theme. The white confines of the Upper Midwest witness a sordid and brutal crime, as a half-baked scheme goes badly wrong and leaves a trail of corpses in its wake. At its heart sits Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), Schmuck of Schmucks and so desperate to get out from under his domineering father-in-law that he orchestrates the kidnapping of his wife just to score a little easy bread.
“Easy” turns out to be quite a bear trap, of course, as he relies on a pair of criminals he barely knows using instructions he might just as well have scribbled on a cocktail napkin. The talkative crook (Steve Buscemi) looks plenty sketchy on his own, but his silent partner (Peter Stomare) holds real darkness behind his eyes, and when things start to go wrong, he has no problems shooting the problem du jour until it stops screaming. Soon enough, the police are on their trail, topped by the folksy (and very pregnant) Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) whose cheerful demeanor hides the doggedness of a bloodhound.
The intent, I believe, is to demonstrate the banality of good and evil: the way we walk past both of them every day without noticing their true nature. Lundegaard betrays an almost sociopathic disregard for other people, barely covered by his used -car smile and a general ineptness that guarantees his messy collapse. We pity and laugh at him in equal measures, and while his sad-sack demeanor engenders a modicum of sympathy, that slowly vanishes as we realize just how far he’ll sink to get clear of his own mess. His ostensible partners in crime are little better: small, stupid men making the kind of small, stupid mistakes that stuff the prison system till it chokes. The Coens love the idiocy of petty criminals, and with these three find a mother lode that few films before or since could ever match.
And yet they pale before the real star of the show. McDormand’s no nonsense police officer exudes the kind of unspoken morality that we hope everyone holds, a sunny strength that doesn’t blind her from doing her job. We’ve watched countless thousands of heroes shoot countless thousands of bad guys over the years, and yet none of them exuded half of Marge’s simple, innate decency when she says “I don’t understand why you killed these people.” The actress has never been better and that’s one thing. But the 18 years since the film’s release, I’m not sure any other performer — male or female — has been quite as good as she was here.
The resulting slice of American Gothic plays out on one of the most striking visual canvases you’re likely to see: white plains and empty vistas punctuated by the barest sketches of buildings and cars. Minnesota doesn’t have many films to its name, and it’s hard to say whether they’d consider this one a compliment or a slap in the face. The Coens (who grew up in the Twin Cities) revel in the darkness behind those sunny smiles: the kind where, to quote Raymond Chandler, “meek little housewives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” But they also show appreciation for the genuine affection that Marge and her husband share: the kind of unspoken devotion that doesn’t need to announce itself. The onscreen culture is a little exaggerated, but carries deep-seated grains of truth (like assuming everyone in California talks like Keanu Reeves), and the question of whether the brothers are lionizing or defrocking their home state becomes yet another one of their iconoclastic little jokes.
Put it all together and you have one of the most unique films of all time, a beautiful encapsulation of the Coens’ ethos and a comedic mystery thriller that truly has no peer. The new show has likely piqued renewed interest in it, but its credentials stand apart from its strange progeny. Fargo is a true American original, just like the unforgettable figures bumbling through its frames. Cinema would be a far poorer place without them.
As you may expect, the new Blu-ray show signs of a hasty release. Thankfully, that doesn’t extend to the movie itself: digitally remastered and looking better than ever. The extra features, unfortunately, are ported directly from earlier DVD versions: a nice behind-the-scenes feature, a collection of PR material and an interesting audio commentary from DP Roger Deakins. The movie itself is the main selling point, but if you’re not interested in an upgrade in image and sound, the remainder of the disc offers nothing that you can’t find on the DVD.