Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

"Either the Coens have no conception of reality, or the people they write about lost the place half way between there and here."

Confucius, he say, “The farther you live from the sea, the crazier you are.” Minnesota is a long way from the sea. The Coen brothers come from there, which may explain why Fargo has a seam of madness running through it.

In 1987, a series of killings shocked the good citizens of the Mid West. This is (allegedly) a reconstruction of those crimes, beginning in Minneapolis and moving on out. Officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), seven months pregnant and married to Norm (John Carroll Lynch), a bird painter, takes on her first homicide, the shooting of three people in the snow on the road to Brainerd.

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It is the story of a kidnap gone wrong. One look at Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and you believe in the chaos theory. Showalter is “funny looking”, with a mouthful of teeth and the patience of a chipmunk. Grimsrud is a Swedish hulk, who doesn’t waste breath on conversation and has a short, deadly fuse. Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy), a car salesman, with the confidence of runny custard, has hired these psycho chancers to grab his wife and demand a ransom, which he will extract from his rich, autocratic father-in-law and then split it three ways.

No one is what you might call normal. The saintly Gunderson has an indestructible naiveté, coupled with a natural flair for police work. Modesty and gauche charm make her investigative technique as chatty as a church social. Lundegaard watches his plans splinter before his eyes. He is lost on the first throw, but won’t admit it, keeps slapping that kick-me smile back onto his face, as if one day someone will hand him a get-out-of-jail card free. The Showalter & Grimsrud Show stumbles from atrocity to mutilation, as if the rules of criminal behaviour have been ditched in North Dakota, ending, like car wrecked bandits, in a wasteland of busted TVs, junk food and truckstop tarts.

Either the Coens have no conception of reality, or the people they write about lost the place half way between there and here. This gives the film a unique character, not strange for its own sake, but unexpected and curious, as if the progression of fatal mishaps has a ruthless, anarchic logic. The feeling that Minnesotans have been denied homogenised brain implants and continue to enjoy the homespun life, without recognising their eccentricity, avoids even an imitation of cliché.

Joel Coen has a wonderful way with snow. He photographs it with the same passion as Mr Hyde for fog. The inventive cinematography, offbeat screenplayfulness and polished performances protect Fargo from the excesses of its unsavoury subject. True-to-life is a reckless promise, except here, where anything, even Norm’s duck on a three cent stamp, is possible.

Reviewed on: 09 Dec 2008
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A cocked up kidnap leads to mayhem and murder.
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Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H Macy, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch, Cliff Rakerd, Kristin Rudrüd, Harve Presnell, Tony Denman, Gary Houston, Sally Wingert, Kurt Schweickhardt, Larissa Kokernot

Year: 1996

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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