The perfect crime

The Coens' dazzling new Fargo rediscovers the horrible, prosaic allure of crime

The closest the film comes to a detailed internal character study is Jerry, but he is simpleminded and desperate, plainly outpaced by the consequences of the activity he has set in motion. From the opening scene he appears out of his depth. His artless handling of the kidnapping only exacerbates the situation, so when he finally snaps, you wonder how he lasted as long as he did. We never delve deeply into Jerry's motivations, but merely accept that he, like almost everyone else in the film, experiences big emotions, probably for the first time, and is uncomfortable dealing with them.

In Blood Simple, as in Edgar Allan Poe's stories--which are less about actual horrors than the madness such horrors have wrought--the psychologies of the main characters fuel the plot. Their fear and guilt, and their drastic reactions to those feelings, give the film its shape. Fargo all but ignores a detailed examination of the psychology of most of its characters, and it is somehow eerier because of it. More like the stories of Ambrose Bierce than Poe, the distinction between person, action, and consequence all but disappears; the characters become their actions, and their actions are predetermined by who they are. Like Bierce's fiction, there's a satiric, almost derisive tenor to the movie. The screenplay mocks the same characters it embraces, so its final tone is hesitant and ambivalent.

In everything they do, the Coen brothers are deliberate and thoughtful filmmakers with a keen sense for the subtle textures of their stories. The screenplay is full of rhythmic dialogue, spoken in a pinched, nasal Minnesota dialect that gives a distinctive, almost Mametlike sound to the film, and every performance is perfectly pitched to contribute to the fabric of the movie.

In a stark landscape where blood stains the snow with silent menace, Fargo speaks of themes about the American experience. The film abruptly and frequently toggles between wickedly sly humor and sudden violence. It is edgy yet unnervingly calm. The Coens suggest that America is a tinderbox where the ordinary faces the abominable, constantly daring it to light a match. Fargo takes that dare, and the greatest surprise may be that after the flames subside, both sides remain standing, each having emerged unscathed.

Fargo. Gramercy Pictures. Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi. Written by Ethan and Joel Coen. Directed by Joel Coen. Opens March 8.

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