Fanfare for the Common Man

Fargo

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

LIKE OTHER SUCKERS for cinematic artiness, I sat slack-jawed throughout Blood Simple, the flashy low-budget thriller that made Joel and Ethan Coen instant auteurs some 10 years back. While I've since found their films--Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink among them--entertaining in a hyperbolic, highbrow way, I've also come away from them with an increasing sense of disappointment.

The Hudsucker Proxy, the brothers' big-budget Hollywood debut, struck out big in '94--both with me and the general public. With its manic, virtuoso camera stunts, big-time stars, and almost obscenely gorgeous production design, this film teetered on the brink of super-badness in all senses of the word. It nearly O.D.'d on its own entertainment value, and consequently, the emptiness lurking behind it became all too apparent.

One reason for this was the remove with which the Coens treat their characters, none of whom is ever sympathetic in the least. Joel once admitted in an interview that "People do find that distance chilly." So it's ironic that the Coens came back to their home state of Minnesota--a place where more than the climate is frigid--for their follow-up to Hudsucker. They've also returned to their filmic roots, making another low-budget thriller that's as brilliantly bare-bones as Hudsucker was overdone. Even the film's title is evocatively spare: one word, two syllables, a town few people know of, and that those who do don't think much of.

Only the opening scene of Fargo actually takes place there, however, when Minneapolis auto salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William Macy) delivers a burnt umber Sierra to a couple of small-time thugs, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). It's a partial payment for the kidnapping of his wife, the idea being that her wealthy father will put up the ransom. For reasons he won't reveal, Jerry's in need of some cash and but quick; he's arranged a 50/50 split of an $80,000 take with the kidnappers. What they don't know is that Jerry is telling his father-in-law that the ransom's a whole lot more than 80 grand.

Suffice to say that plans go horribly awry. Three people wind up dead outside of Brainerd, and that's just the start of the ample and gruesome violence that's become a Coen signature. The weird hairstyles, barfing, a "blustery titan" character (a term coined by one of their friends), some of the brothers' other auteur-factors, are also present here, but in a low-key way. And as always, the odd insertion of certain words and phrases--"unguent" and "malfeasance," or a suspect "fleeing the interview"--is an unexpected source of humor.

So too is the Minnesota dialect. The script is full of bovine pronunciation and simple-minded colloquialisms (in New York, press kits included a copy of How to Talk Minnesotan), and seemingly every other line is punctuated with yaaahs and you betchas. It's the Coens' one concession to excess in this film. Otherwise, they forego wacky camera antics in favor of slow pans and impressively composed still shots, creating a stylistic framework that reflects their utterly artless characters.

The Coens are known for applying a bent sensibility to genre films. Here, they claim to tell the story of a 1987 murder case "exactly as it occurred" (save for a few name changes), in a big-screen take on the true-to-life TV movies that have proliferated in recent years. Yet Fargo's characters have none of the bland attractiveness of their televisual counterparts; their homeliness is accentuated with a lot of grimacing, chewing, pinched crabbiness, and otherwise unattractive facial tics.

You could also see Fargo as a noir film whose primary color is white. But instead of snazzy innuendoes and one-liners, it offers a dialogue of dullards and dipshits: "You're darn tootin'!" is Jerry's wrathful motto, while Carl assures the glacially reserved Gaear that when it comes to "total fucking silence... well, two can play at that game, smart guy." As per usual, the Coens' trademark opening shot--here a car driving carefully along a snowy highway--also hints at a thematic strategy. As the car reappears from a dip in the road, the folksy, mildly poignant music crescendoes suddenly into booming symphonics--a thrillingly oddball dissonance that signals Fargo as an epic of the mundane.

The movie is full of small odes to the commonplace: slow pans over the array of hot dishes in a cafeteria line, muzak lilting in the background; identical plants in diminishing sizes laid out on a coffee table; Jerry Lundegaard doodling his anxieties onto an "I * Golf" notepad. Two old acquaintances meet at a Minneapolis bar, one of them commenting that "it's a Radisson, so you know it's good." Sure, it's a product-placement joke, but it's also the way people really talk. All of this gentle normalcy--dull sets, dull people--gets played up artfully by the filmmakers, and played for maximum irony against a general sense of moral vacancy. When his son asks if everything's all right, Jerry, having just discovered a couple of murdered corpses, responds, "Yaah... I'm going to go to bed now."

Epic tales require a hero, however, and with Fargo the anti-heroic, amoral Coens supply their first. In a role that normally calls for a ruggedly handsome or beefily avuncular man, Brainerd's police chief is played by the seven-months-pregnant Frances McDormand. And where such men are often angst-ridden or plagued by some dark secret, McDormand's well-liked and capable Margie Gunderson is all perky cheerfulness. She's smart but not brilliant (this is a mundane epic, remember), and has a blissful domestic life too, with her doting househusband Norm (John Carroll Lynch).

This twist on gender roles also serves as an extra kick in the head to film's villain, the ineffectual middle-class white guy that is Jerry Lundegaard. William Macy perfectly embodies the Nordic repression and frozen cheer of Minnesotans at their worst: His ruddy face has all the vapidity of a ventriloquist's dummy; his wide blue eyes are glazed over with the willful innocence of middle America. All he knows is the empty language of the go-getter, a wheeler-dealer who never comes through: "We've got to play ball with these guys," he tells his tearful son about the kidnappers; "We run a tight ship here... We're workin' with ya," he insists to the authorities. Totally without a clue, he's both frightening and pathetic once his psychosis begins to surface.

For all its digs at Minnesotan culture, Fargo has its weirdly poignant side. There's a woman trapped in a crashed car, panting, terrified, staring silently; and an uncomfortably lengthy scene in which Carl goes ape shit over bad TV reception, while the camera homes in on a vacant Gaear and the tied-up, hooded kidnap victim. A great sequence has Margie driving home pensively from Minneapolis, greeting the menu at a Hardee's drive-thru, chewing her burger pensively in the car, then continuing on, lost in thought. These are the more humane takes in a movie that's otherwise enthralled with the grotesqueries of the everyday.

All the amplified and exploited stereotypes serve to tell another of the Coens' idiosyncratic stories, which is more than a mean-spirited parody of their home state. These filmmakers cannot be so easily pegged, and as if to prove it, they've tacked an uncharacteristically sweet ending onto Fargo--another something that, this time around, gets you thinking that maybe they're for real.

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