Conventional wisdom says that the Coen Brothers--Joel, who directs, and Ethan, who produces--can do no wrong artistically. Of course, that's not true.
Barton Fink, with its arrogant antihero wittily subverting the idea that the creative process can take the place of real-life experience, was a generally dense and often obtuse movie. When watching it, you felt that the Coens must have finally bought into the myth about themselves as art-house gods--and decided that making an Important Film was a worthier goal than making a cogent one.
I was a fan of The Hudsucker Proxy (yes, there are a few of us) despite its flaws, and Miller's Crossing, in my mind, is one of the preeminent gangster films of this half-century; but you have to approach the Coens' movies reservedly. The brothers tend to swing wildly between genres, so you can never be sure what tone they will emphasize, whether laced with gallows humor or just plain dark, from film to film. That unpredictability may be what makes them such interesting filmmakers to so many critics and their loyal cult following: Their individuality, and almost quixotic fascination with diverse themes, elevates the arrival of their movies from mere openings to genuine events.
On first blush, the Coens' latest film, Fargo, might appear to be only a Midwestern variation on Blood Simple. The two films seem to share several elements: A husband hires a shady villain to do away with his wife; a woman is trapped in a bathroom by a killer; a crime encounters unexpected complications; an oncoming car threatens to derail a roadside killing's smooth execution. (The barren Texas landscape, spare and balmy, is replaced by an equally bleak, wintry one.) The similarities are so apparent that you feel--for a moment, at least--that the Coens may have lost their edge.
But the genius of the movie quickly manifests itself. You realize that if Blood Simple was a stylistic exercise, Fargo is a concert performance--an illuminating amalgam of emotion and thought. It glimpses into the heart of man and unearths a blackly comic nature, hellishly mercurial and selfish, yet strangely innocent. If it weren't so funny, it would be unbearably disturbing.
Blood Simple, the Coens' auspicious debut effort, was essentially a genre movie--film noir with a Texas setting. As good as it was, it was bloated with mood and atmosphere and a serpentine plot. The film's ethic sprang from the pages of pulp-fiction writers like Jim Thompson and James M. Cain.
By comparison, the events that take place in Fargo are utterly prosaic. Based on a true 1987 story about a Minnesota kidnapping gone sour, the unadorned facts could probably occupy a movie of the week, assuming the gore were toned down. The Coens are fully aware of this: The opening title steals from Dragnet's infamous introduction that "names were changed to protect the innocent."
Unlike a TV movie--and unlike Blood Simple--Fargo takes little interest in the minds of its characters. The steely, detached, yet polite manner in which everyone deals with each other lends the film a certain brand of realism. These are plain-speaking Midwesterners, not introspective intellectuals, and to the extent that they represent Middle America, the Coens have prepared a stinging indictment of the emotional maturity of the nation: It's Seven filtered through the sunny perspective of Forrest Gump.
Jerry Lunde-gaard (William H. Macy) is a car salesman whose financial troubles compel him to kidnap his wife and ransom her from her wealthy father (Harve Presnell). Jerry recruits two unstable criminals, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), to abduct her. When they kill a cop while making their escape, the local police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), pursues the case.
The Coens' application of Midwestern sensibilities to the horrific events they portray results in a compelling analysis of the anatomy of crime, from three perspectives: that of the police, the kidnappers, and Jerry.
Marge's investigation into the homicide proceeds in a weirdly routine fashion in which humor undercuts ghastliness. After standing over a grisly murder scene, she bends over as if to vomit. "You OK, chief?" her deputy asks. "Yeah, just a little morning sickness," says Marge, who is pregnant. When her deputy puts together clues incorrectly, she doesn't assail him for shoddy police work but gently redirects his efforts. Like Columbo, Marge uses her innate politeness as an investigative tool, but she does it without Columbo's artifice. Her cool isn't invented; it's the absence of her ability to behave otherwise. She's cheerily stuck in a rut, and doesn't even realize when life offers her an opportunity to break free of it. Everything about her, including her marriage, exemplifies boredom, but it is from the routine that she takes her comfort. When the movie ends, she's happier with her life than you could ever imagine being if you had witnessed what she had.
Carl and Gaear lead dull lives, too, but their boredom festers into violence. In the movie River's Edge, a group of teen-agers is so disaffected as to be numb to all emotion when they learn that a classmate has murdered his girlfriend. They spend the rest of the movie reflecting on what that says about them as human beings. Carl and Gaear never reach the point of self-analysis. They resemble the spree-killing teens in Badlands--neither maniacal nor essentially spiteful, they simply adjust to each situation as it arises.
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.
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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.