|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 15 August 2000|
And so what? We turn to movies for all kinds of things, but we rarely come to them for the truth, and there's no justification for doing so. Even documentaries stack their decks, and that's what they should be doing. The point is it doesn't matter if "Fargo" is based on a true story, or was completely invented by Joel and Ethan Coen. What matters is that it's a terrific movie, probably still their best work, so good it is teetering on the brink of being declared a classic.
It would be good if that were to happen, of course, but it's hoped that if so, people start coming to "Fargo" with their hat in their hands, so to speak. The movie is just too goddamned much fun to be viewed as a sacred object. It is, in fact, the funniest movie I have ever seen that actually isn't a comedy. The story is told absolutely straight, and involves some bracing jolts of violence, not the least of which is what finally befalls Steve Buscemi. But it takes place in the Coens' home state, Minnesota, and that makes all the difference.
As the title of the documentary indicates, people in Minnesota are really nice to each other, very polite, smiling all the time, and a lot of them talk in that Scandinavian-derived sing-song accent that includes a lot of "You betchas" and "Yahs." McDormand comments at one point that she had some scenes in which her dialog entirely consisted of variations on "Yah." And Macy -- who turns out to be a great interview subject -- tells the joke about how you get four drunk Minnesotans out of a swimming pool. You say, "Would you guys please get out of the swimming pool?"
This DVD includes not one but two pristine prints of "Fargo;" one is the wide-screen version, the other the "standard" version that fills your TV screen but cuts off the image on both sides. This doesn't matter as much with "Fargo" as it does with a lot of movies, since so much of the film is shot in a kind of white-out. It's winter, and the prairies are covered in snow; the sky, too, is white and glowing -- at times the horizon disappears altogether, and you can't tell the earth from the sky. Cars appear out of and disappear into thin but impenetrable fog. Fences disappear into the distance in a shot that's unexpectedly funny. And everyone is so nice.
Well, everyone, that is, except Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), and even he is usually polite. Macy describes his character as dumb as a bag of rocks, but he's persistent, and peculiarly likeable all the way through the movie. This was the film that shifted Macy from "who was that guy?" to "great, it's Macy again!" He received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his work here, and fully deserves it as the increasingly tense but resolutely clueless husband who pays a couple of louts to kidnap his wife.
He meets them in a bar in Fargo, North Dakota, not all that far from Minneapolis (however, almost none of the movie takes place in Fargo). The gabby one is Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), who's not from these parts; his usually-silent partner is big, mean Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), who is local. They're not very good crooks, and can't even get the upper hand on newcomer-to-mayhem Jerry. But they set out on their kidnapping mission.
He's involved in some kind of crooked scheme at the car dealership where he works; we never learn the details, other that they involve VINs that he's tried to write unnoticeably illegible. He works for his mean old bastard of a father in law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), a cheapskate and the only rude Minnesotan we meet. Jerry wants also to invest in a property development, and outlines his idea to Wade, hoping to get a loan. Briefly, Jerry tries to call off the kidnapping. But Wade arrogantly decides to run the scheme himself.
Carl and Gaear do kidnap Jerry's wife (Kristin Rudrud) in a scene that's both scary and funny, like much of the movie. As they try to flee, they kill a cop and a couple of passer-by witnesses. It's not clear the witnesses would have been much help, since every Minnesotan who sees Carl (including a hooker he beds) describes him only as "funny-looking," usually in "a general kind of way."
This brings Marge Gunderson (McDormand) into the story, and she's the movie's greatest innovation, an original character. Marge is happily married to wildlife artist John, and she's seven months pregnant. She's also the police chief of the small town of Brainerd, near which the killings took place. Marge is a very good cop, respected by her deputies, a lifelong resident of Brainerd. And she's the movie's leading exponent of Minnesota Nice. She's nice to everyone, a chipper smile on her face, a "Yah" and "you can say that again" for everyone. But she's also a responsible and serious person, best seen when she meets an old high school friend, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), who clumsily tries to put the moves on her. But they're both very nice to each other, and there's something almost dizzily funny about a Japanese-American talking in this musical Minnesota accent.
The whole movie is like this. Poor Carl is endlessly frustrated by trying to scare, intimidate or otherwise lord it over cheerful Minnesotans, as well as his not-cheerful, surly partner. He can't win for losing, and is clearly headed for disaster from the first moment we see him. Buscemi is, as usual, terrific -- but then everyone in the cast is, from musical star Harve Presnell, to Stormare (who's really Swedish), to the smiling, cheery hookers Marge interviews. It's like watching a crime drama set on Mars, a Mars where everyone is continually positive and upbeat.
It's not just the combination of crime drama and Minnesota Nice that's funny, it's the very Minnesota Nice itself. And yet the Coens are not remotely making fun of people with this American-Swedish accent/delivery. There are some critics who repeatedly snarl at the Coens for making movies about characters they don't like -- but it sure looks to me as though they like all their characters, even their swines. They certainly like everyone here -- except maybe Wade. And you will, too.
If you haven't seen "Fargo," this new DVD is an outstanding way to introduce yourself to one of the most original and entertaining American movies of the last ten years. Everything about the film is outstanding. Many aspects of the movie received award nominations all around the world, and the movie often won them. It won two Oscars, for Frances McDormand's utterly convincing performance as Marge, and for the script by the Coens. Roger Deakins' photography was one of the elements of the film that received an Oscar nomination; he's worked with the Coens several times, and clearly embodies the ideas they're working toward. Carter Burwell's score is as unusual as the film, mostly gently wistful melodies of a regional, American style.
The "Minnesota Nice" documentary includes interviews with many of the people involved, including Macy, who says that to get the role, he threatened to kill Joel and Ethan's dog. (Actually, he determinedly pursued the job.) Every aspect of the film is covered briefly and succinctly, and the personalities of those involved come through clearly. It's even touching at times, as when Stormare tells about his experiences looking up Swedes in Minnesota. It's one of the best DVD documentaries so far, and was directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.
But there's another amazing feature, the "trivia track." When this is engaged, little transparent colored signs appear on screen, filling in details about all kinds of stuff. They identify the state birds of Minnesota and North Dakota, give a little history of McDonald's, tell us at one point 'this movie has been running for 32. 5 minutes." They tell us how to pronounce Buscemi's last name (Bu-semm-ee), and add that he's considered to be an innately kind person, but also adds "this film does not show off Buscemi's innate kindness." I've never seen a feature like this before; it's perfectly matched to the movie in its drier-than-dry wit and straight-faced seriousness. It's the work of Robert Rasmussen, who should be immediately given a big chocolate cake.
There are also other features, including an interesting segment of a Charlie Rose TV show, with the Coens and Frances McDormand (Mrs. Joel Coen) as the guests. It's very much worth watching, and covers some material not featured in the documentary.
Roger Deakins provides the commentary track, useful and interesting depending largely on your appreciation of cinematography, which is also true of the (text) article on his work in "Fargo" from the "American Cinematographer." There's also production photos, a gallery of advertising, and a trailer for MGM's DVD release of "Blue Velvet." Supposedly there are some Easter eggs, but the only one I found featured a snow globe of Marge and the wrecked car (similar to globes given away with VHS tapes of "Fargo" a few years ago), and all that did was replicate the menu. I'm sure there are other Easter eggs, but I missed them.
The Coens have made a lot of good movies (and one not so good), from "Blood Simple" on through "Barton Fink," "Raising Arizona," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother Where Art Thou" and the current "Intolerable Cruelty." But though they claim to regard Minnesota as "Siberia with family restaurants," it brought out the very best in them. "Fargo" is their masterpiece.