"A homespun murder story. "Jerry Lundegaard's inept crime falls apart due to his and his henchmen's bungling and the persistent police work of pregnant Marge Gunderson.
Don't Forgo Fargo
Boy, is this a good movie. In its bare bones it is a crime drama but
the Coen brothers constantly undercut the seriousness with a quirky
irony. The acting, the script, and the direction lift the movie light
years above most of the movies of its decade.
The performances, for instance, everyone speaks with what passes for an
upper Midwestern accent, a very pronounced accent, let's say. So when
characters are doing wicked things on screen, it's rather like watching
people dressed in clown suits do nasty things. It's utterly impossible
to take it very seriously -- only just seriously enough for us to feel
sorry for the victims and to disapprove of the bad guys, but no more
Everyone except the two killers are forced by their culture to speak
and act cheerfully. They never swear either. "You're darn tootin',"
they say. The casting couldn't be better, with Frances McDormand, Steve
Buscemi, and Bill Macy outstanding.
The script is likewise splendidly done. It's full of scenes that seem
peripheral except that they add to our understanding of the characters
and often lead to later payoffs. Without taking the space to describe
them, I will simply mention the scene in the restaurant between
MacDormand and her Japanese friend from high school. Why is it in there
at all? (My God, those hotel restaurants are depressingly ugly.) Well
-- among other things, such as establishing the kind of milieu these
folks consider Ritzy, it tells us quite a bit about how MacDormand
handles attempts to violate her inherent good nature. When the Japanese
guy tries to sit next to her she tells him firmly that she'd prefer it
if he sat across the table so that she can see him more easily. When he
breaks down in tears she whispers that it's all okay. She is polite, a
little distant without being unfriendly, completely practical, and
absolutely iron bound in her values. Nobody is going to take advantage
of or discompose this hyper pregnant babe.
In another scene, when she's pressing one of the criminals during an
interview, he excuses himself for a moment and she spots him taking off
in his car. She exclaims, "Oh, for Pete's sake, he's FLEEIN' THE
INTERVIEW." It's impossible to improve on a line like that, or on
MacDormand's delivery of it.
The third element of the film that makes it superior is the direction.
The pauses come at the right times. A woman is sitting on her couch
watching a soap opera on TV. Through the glass door of her apartment
she sees a man approach. He's wearing a black ski mask and carrying a
crowbar. He walks up to her door and shades his eyes while trying to
peer inside. Now in an ordinary action movie, by this time the woman
would be screeching and speeding down the hallway. Not here. The victim
sits there staring at the intruder as he fiddles at the door, half
horrified and half curious. "Who is this guy? He's not the meter
reader, is he?" Coen the director has an eye for the suggestive
picturesque too. Bill Macy has asked his father-in-law for a large loan
for some sure-fire business proposition, but Dad offers him only a
finder's fee. We see Macy's deflated face as his disappointment sets
in. Cut. Now we're looking at a white screen punctuated by four or five
bare trees equidistant from one another, and there is a tiny car in the
middle of the whiteness. Then Macy's tiny figure trudges into the
bottom of the shot and we realize we're looking at a snow-filled
parking lot with only one ordinary-sized car in the center of it.
Wintery weather plays an important part in the movie. People die in it,
drive off the road because of it, stand shivering in it. Two freezing
people are conversing on the street while one shovels snow. The
shoveler stops, gazes up at the sky, and remarks that it "ought to be
really cold tomorrow." Cars and ambulances tend to drive in and out of
white outs during blizzards and blowing snow. MacDormand is driving her
murdering prisoner through a blank white landscape in which nothing
much is visible and she is mildly remonstrating with him, saying
something like, "Why did you do it, for a little bit of money? It's a
perfect day, and here you are." (A perfect day!) There are seven
murders in this movie. Only three take place on screen. The others
either take place off screen or else the director has the good sense to
cut at the moment the gun fires or the ax blade lands.
"Fargo" is one of perhaps half a dozen movies from the 1990s that I
would consider buying on DVD. It's an original and refreshingly adult
picture. Don't miss it.