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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Fargo (1996)

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

At some point in their lives, the Coen brothers must have know a really cool cop. How else to explain that they managed to depict two of the very best police officers ever captured on screen – here with Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and in No Country For Old Men with Ed Tom Bell. In this twisted tale of kidnapping, greed and murder, where everything that can go wrong does, Marge is the only character who isn’t severely out of her depth. By mixing the brutality of the crime with the pleasant ordinariness of Marge’s everyday life, the Coens created a film that defies any easy classification. It’s clearly a drama. And it’s clearly a comedy. It is most certainly a masterpiece.

The film begins by telling us that this is a true story, which is and isn’t true. It’s actually bits and pieces of several true stories combined into one narrative. “If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept,” Joel Coen has said by way of explaining the “true story” foreword. And it’s true because when you watch it, you can’t help but think that some of the things that go on in the film are so outrageous that they have to be true. The infamous wood chipper scene, for example, is based on the actual murder of a woman from Connecticut. So, knowing that truth is stranger than fiction, it’s easy to believe that car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) could come up with a plot to rid himself of his debts by having his wife kidnapped so that her wealthy father will pay the ransom. It’s also believable that the father-in-law will push Jerry aside to take matters into his own hands, that the two hired kidnappers (Steve Buschemi as Carl and Peter Stormare as Gaear) will prove to be less than reliable (not to mention compatible), and that the story will end in tragedy for all.

In and of itself, the basic plot of a kidnapping gone awry would be enough for a compelling story, but Fargo goes beyond simply being “good” and becomes “great” through the addition of pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, a character who possesses something which remarkably few film characters are allowed (or, at least, allowed to use): a brain. Her ability to observe and correctly assess situations in order to make the best decision sets her apart from the other characters, many of whom make snap decisions while in a panic – Jerry, Carl – or who simply fail to properly think things through – again, Jerry, and Marge’s deputy Lou, who provides the set-up for Marge’s best line, “I don’t agree with you 100 per cent on your police work, there, Lou.” Aside from her intelligence, Marge also provides a welcome counterbalance to the Lundegaards’ tragedy through events which take place in her own life apart from the investigation. The scenes between Marge and her husband (John Carroll Church), and Marge and her high school classmate Mike (Steve Park), have nothing to do with the murder plot, but tell us volumes about Marge herself and make her all the more easy to identify with.

The Coens walk a fine line, balancing the elements of comedy and drama in this story and often pitting the two against each other in the same scene. In the scene where Marge meets with Mike, for example, there’s an awkwardness between them which is funny, but there’s also something a little off, a little sad about Mike, whom Marge handles with as much delicacy as possible. In the kidnapping scene itself there is the faint hint of slapstick as Mrs. Lundegaard comes running out of her hiding spot in the bathtub, gets caught in the shower curtain and takes a tumble, but the scene is pulled back into its darker undertones by the presence of Gaear. And any scene involving Jerry features a healthy dose of both the comedic and the dramatic.

If nothing else, Fargo is a perfect example of how big a role casting plays in the success of a movie. Frances McDormand as the sincere and steady Marge, William H. Macy as the nervous Jerry whose self-doubt creeps just beneath all his words, Steve Buscemi as the excitable Carl, and Peter Stormare as the quietly menacing and cavalierly cruel Gaear – all of these actors are irreplaceable in their roles, so completely do they encapsulate these characters. However, not content to let it rest on great performances – or great writing – the Coens also bring considerable technical skill to it. My favourite shot in the film is of Jerry walking to his car across a deserted, snow-covered parking lot. The vastness of the white, empty space around him seems to perfectly encapsulate his state of mind as he finds himself pushed further and further away from his dream of finally making something of himself.

When all is said and done, the film ends not with the resolution to the investigation, but beyond that on a quiet note between Marge and her husband. He’s just learned that his painting will be featured on a stamp, downplaying the achievement in the face of Marge’s support. “It’s just a three cent stamp… People don’t much use the three cent,” he insists. “Of course they do. Whenever they raise postage people need the little stamps,” Marge replies. It’s Marge’s ability to come home from her own major triumph but still be able to recognize and celebrate that of her husband that makes her so very endearing, and it’s the film’s ability to take us to the darkest of places but still end on this quiet, charming note, that makes it so very watchable.

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