More and more, I am finding that I am a sensibility guy. There are some directors whose sensibility and worldview I immediately connect to, or am enamoured with – Terrence Malick and Wes Craven being perhaps the two that most immediately spring to mind. This works both ways though, and there are certain beloved directors whose craft I can respect, but that fail to move me on an enjoyment or thematic level as much as most people. I spoke of this when reviewing Scorsese’s Casino (1995) recently, and in addition to Marty it is perhaps the Coen Brothers who connect with me the least.
Whilst Blood Simple (1984) was their first film, it was Fargo (1996) that really vaulted the duo onto the indie map and they have never looked back. Speaking of sensibilities, the Coens have a very unique one. So much so that it is disconcerting to the viewer in its unconventionality. We are used to certain structures and beats that are rarely delivered in the order or pacing that is expected. Of course, subverting expectation is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself. But it perhaps hurts the overall impact of this film, particularly on a purely narrative level. The first period of the film is focused on William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, a down on his luck car salesman looking to get rich quick through organising a kidnapping of his wife that will force her loaded dad to come up with the ransom payment that Jerry will share with his hired goons. There is a deep well of thematic complexity with this character, a normalish guy in way over his head, which forces him to forsake his family. It is not until the half hour mark that we meet Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. A heavily pregnant police detective brought in to investigate the murders this scheme has wrought. The film is at its best when it ratchets up the action and violence. There’s a coldness to Peter Stormares’s hired goon that fits perfectly into the snowbound landscapes. Overall there is a weird mix to the tone. Drama and black comedy but laced with the occasional piece of heightened Tarantino style dialogue or a silly character.
Marge is a great character, immediately exceeding the somewhat dreary and languid setup of the film. Everything about the story thread with McDormand at the core elevates the film. The writing of the procedural elements offers an auteurist take on the genre tropes of crime fiction, as she runs down the various clues on the case. The character and performance are excellent examples of quirk without grating the audience. Pregnant, wide-eyed, diligent, brilliant and hilariously written and performed. The arrival of McDormand and Marge change the film totally, the character giving the film something to anchor on, settling it in a really good way. She makes the straight comedy scenes a lot funnier and the investigative angle gives the plot the purpose and conventionality it needs. Of course the focus on Jerry is not abandoned and that part of the film still feels flat. In large part that is because the character is such a weak one. The film is really ‘about’ this character if anyone. But he’s so unsympathetic, with vague motivations and that comes off as needlessly oblique rather than mysterious, and I do think the character makes the film weaker overall. The real Ned Flanders vibe coming from Macy’s performance at times didn’t exactly help bring me along either. After McDormand, Peter Stormare gives the best performance. He has this wonderful elemental presence of danger that looms over proceedings and is thankfully not overused.
Verdict: There are two ways to think about Fargo. About 30 minutes’ worth are a very good, very original lean police procedural. The rest is a dramatic black comedy let down by a weak main character in Jerry. However McDormand and the character of Maggie are so great that the film is worthwhile simply for her presence. Stubby of Reschs