Monday, June 6, 2011

Fargo: There's more to life than a little money

Fargo (drama, crime, thriller)
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | 1996 | 98 min | Rated R | Released May 12, 2009

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English: Dolby Digital 2.0
French, German, Italian, Spanish: DTS 5.1
French, Portuguese, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1

English SDH, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Mandarin (Simplified and Traditional), Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, Turkish

Single 50GB Blu-ray Disc

The Film 5/5

The first time I watched Fargo, I didn’t know what to expect. After multiple viewings, it’s still hard to pin down exactly what the film is. There’s a bizarre plot focusing on Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) who works for his father-in-law’s car dealership. Without ever learning why, we are told that Jerry needs money. His plan is to hire two men he has never met to kidnap his wife. He’ll pay them $40,000, but he’ll tell his father-in-law, Wade, that the ransom is $1,000,000. It’s a simple enough plan.

Jerry’s true nature is revealed early in the film when he openly lies to a customer. The two men he has hired are Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Buscemi plays the same type of character that he played in Reservoir Dogs, talking continually, whining and cracking jokes. Stormare barely speaks, but springs into action when he feels the situation demands it.

The plot unfolds with Jerry trying and failing to borrow $750,000 from Wade for a business opportunity. Carl and Gaear make their way into town and eventually get around to abducting Jerry’s wife. It’s here that Jerry’s plan starts to go wrong. A cop pulls over Carl and Gaear while they have Jerry’s wife tied up on the back seat of the car. Carl fails to recover the situation so Gaear kills the cop and a couple of witnesses.

After the triple-murder, the third main character is introduced. She’s Marge Gunderson, a pregnant Police Chief. It’s 33 minutes before her character appears, but it seems like she holds the film together. While appearing a little slow and dorky, she’s actually highly-intelligent and intuitive. She quickly reconstructs the crime scene and realizes how the triple-murder happened.

Marge’s intellect means that she’s respected by the officers she works with, but her seemingly normal demeanor isn’t threatening and the people she interviews are caught off guard. She also gives the film balance during the scenes with Norm (John Carroll Lynch), her husband. They have a wonderful relationship and each accepts the other for exactly what they are. The contrast between Marge’s life at home and the way she performs at work is startling.

Jerry receives a visit from Marge at work, but manages to deflect her questions and she leaves without suspecting him. Later, we see a crucial scene where she meets an old acquaintance from school. He blatantly lies about his life and Marge leaves with a sense of unease. It’s a reminder that people don’t always tell the truth and she decides to visit Jerry again.

One of the funniest things about the film is Jerry. He’s pretty dumb and almost every word that leaves his mouth is a lie. But Macy talks about the character in the special features and notes that Jerry never gives up. One disaster follows another, but he always revises his plan and believes that he can pull it off. It’s interesting to see what he’ll try next.

The film’s supporting cast is full of intriguing characters. Wade insists on delivering the ransom money himself and that’s exactly what someone with his personality would do. Marge interviews some hookers who spent an evening with Carl and Gaear and there’s a funny exchange: She learns that one of the men was kinda funny looking. She presses for more information and is told that he wasn’t circumcised. The film is full of this kind of dark humor.

There’s quite a bit of violence, but it is confined to short bursts. I counted seven murders in all, but the quirky humor and tongue-in-cheek presentation never make the violent scenes too jarring. This is a film that should be viewed as a dark comedy more than anything.

Marge’s closing monologue is simple and effective; it asks us to contemplate why people commit crimes and puts things into perspective somewhat. McDormand won an Oscar for her performance and thoroughly deserved it. Macy was also nominated and the film’s screenplay was given another Oscar.

Video Quality 4/5
Roger Deakins’ cinematography perfectly captures the desolate scenery and the Blu-ray presentation is pleasing to the eye. Detail is strong, and the ever-present grain is never too heavy. There are a few white speckles at the beginning of the film, but the image quickly improves. The upgrade over the DVD is easily worth the price of the Blu-ray.

Audio Quality 4.5/5
Although there’s a lot of dialogue, the supporting sound effects are an important part of the film. It’s particularly evident when the characters walk in the compacted snow and we hear a pleasing crunch. When shots are fired, they ring out clearly. Most of the track is front-heavy, but that’s where most of the action is. The violin used in the score is particularly effective.

Special Features 2.5/5

The features are all presented in standard definition.

Commentary with Director of Photography Roger Deakins

Minnesota Nice Documentary (27:47) – The Coen brothers and main cast talk about the film, likening Minnesota to Siberia with family restaurants. Learn what the actors thought of their roles and how they enjoyed working with the directors.

Photo Gallery – Stills from the shoot.

Theatrical Trailer (1:58)

TV Spot (0:31)

American Cinematography Article – A series of stills discussing the work of Roger Deakins.

Fargo is an odd film. It grabs your interest early and slowly increases the tension as the story unfolds. You’ll see a glimpse of what life might be like in small-town America, and you’ll laugh. The Coen brothers have made some very good films and a couple of great ones. This falls into the second category. The Blu-ray presentation is a good upgrade and I strongly recommend the film itself.

Overall score 5/5 

See where Fargo ranks among my Top 20 dramas by clicking here.

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