Quirky. Edgy. Goofy. Intense. All these adjectives describe the work of Joel and Ethan Coen in general and their 1996 award-winner, 'Fargo,' in particular. This wild, wonderfully weird, quasi-comedic thriller transports us to a far-off land filled with perennially cheery, exceedingly polite people who bend over backward to make the world a bright, happy place – when they're not killing each other. It's called Minnesota, and before I saw 'Fargo,' I believed it was one of our 50 states. Now I'm convinced it's really a foreign country. That's due to the Coen brothers, who exaggerate the region's distinct social flavor and Scandinavian heritage just enough to inject an otherwise routine crime drama with some unexpected homespun charm and delicious black humor. Although 'Fargo' has lost some of its sting – both comedic and violent – since its initial release 13 years ago, it remains a unique, well-crafted film that perfectly reflects the personalities and creative M.O. of its makers.
Brainerd is a sleepy rural community in central Minnesota that quickly wakes up when (very) pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) learns of a gruesome triple homicide on the outskirts of town. The take-charge Marge quickly launches a full-scale investigation that encompasses both her comfortable snowy environs and the big city of Minneapolis. What she doesn't know is that the killings stem from a kidnapping engineered by debt-ridden car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who hires two incompetent thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to abduct his rich wife (Kristin Rudrüd) so her tightwad tycoon dad (Harve Presnell) will pay the hefty ransom...which Jerry will split with his accomplices. If all goes according to plan, no one will get hurt, Jerry will pay off his debts and close a lucrative commercial deal, and everyone will live happily ever after. Almost from the get-go, however, things go horribly awry, and the intrepid Marge must try to make sense of a very bloody mess.
In retrospect, 'Fargo' feels like a warm-up for the Coens' other masterwork, 'No Country for Old Men.' Though the two films are far different in tone and execution, the basic themes of greed and justice pulse through them, punctuated by strikingly similar bursts of graphic violence and a subtle stylistic playfulness. (Don't believe a word of the "this is based on a true story" opening; it's a total, bald-faced lie.) Yet back in 1996, Joel and Ethan were less mainstream, more renegade, and their brash youthfulness shook up the film industry. 'Fargo' may be a bit more conventional than their previous works, but the way it mixes and matches genres and skewers the Upper Midwest captivated the film-going public during its initial theatrical run.
Though there's plenty of action, the film is really character driven, and the Coens, who picked up an Academy Award for their screenplay, create a gallery of fascinating specimens. The fun of 'Fargo' lies in watching all these eccentric creatures interact, and hearing them spout all the regional lingo. From the "Oh, yahs" to the "You betchas," the Coens perfectly capture the dialect's rhythm and timbre, and smoothly incorporate it into the dialogue. Today, it's hard to watch the movie and not think of Sarah Palin, whose speech patterns eerily mirror those of Marge and others.
McDormand doesn't appear until a third of the way through, but her work was good enough to earn her a Best Actress Oscar. Though not a typical award-winning performance – she has no big emotional scenes, nor does she visibly stretch her range – McDormand brings an endearing, genuine quality to the role, nailing the Minnesota cadences and perky affectations as she disappears inside her character. Like the film itself, her portrayal is both subtle and broad at the same time, and she makes Marge warm, spunky, and surprisingly real. 'Fargo,' of course, put Macy on the map, and he brilliantly embodies the in-over-his-head car salesman who's desperate to settle his mounting debts and emerge from his father-in-law's shadow, but can't escape the role of doltish lapdog he's been forced to play for so long. It's a marvelous piece of acting, and Macy was justly rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
In all, 'Fargo' received seven Oscar nods, including ones for Best Picture, Director, and Cinematography. Though it's been eclipsed by 'No Country,' this searing blend of macabre humor and brutality stands as one of the Coen brothers' best efforts, and is very much an American original. What's more, anyone who sees it will never look at Minnesota the same way again.
'Fargo' arrives on Blu-ray sporting a high-quality 1080p transfer that doesn't mask the film's flaws, but still provides moments of stunning clarity. Grain is evident much of the time, but close-ups are crisp, smooth, and dimensional, often popping off the screen. Macy especially benefits from this vivid treatment – his wide eyes, textured face, and perfectly combed hair are all brilliantly rendered. Though the predominant gray skies and bleak winter atmosphere prohibit much color from creeping in, there are sporadic bursts of vibrant contrast that nicely accent primary hues.
Blacks are dense and rich, and night scenes possess a marvelous sense of foreboding. The bright whites, however, have always been problematic, and some digital noise occasionally permeates barren landscapes, especially when they're snow covered. I also noticed some mild shimmering on striped shirt patterns. Details, though, come through quite well; faint splotches of dirt and grime on car windows are clearly visible, and bits of home décor stand out.
'Fargo' is a low-budget, independent film; it will never look pristine without significant digital doctoring. Thankfully, this transfer steers clear of such enhancements and preserves the picture's original appearance. It's a wonderful effort and a significant step up from the previous DVD edition.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix possesses some punch, but the dialogue-laden track doesn't offer many opportunities for full-fledged surround sound. Still, it's a pleasant enough listening experience, with faint atmospherics occasionally offering a semblance of multi-channel effects. Crisp, distinct details, such as the crunching of snow beneath footsteps, help immerse us in the frozen setting, and a few sonic jolts (usually from a gun barrel) perk up the track. Not surprisingly, bass frequencies are weak, and there's little stereo separation across the front.Dialogue, however, is well prioritized, and all the "yahs," "you betchas," and colorful ramblings of the main characters come through clearly. As far as music goes, Carter Burwell's majestic, often bombastic score seems a little out of place, but enjoys terrific fidelity, nicely expanding across the sound field with palpable presence and a marvelous depth of tone.
Even though this is far from a bowl-you-over mix, it's hard to imagine 'Fargo' sounding any better than it does here, and fans should be quite pleased with this lossless upgrade.
Nothing new on the supplement front; everything here appeared on the most recent DVD edition. While not extensive, there's enough solid material to do the film justice and entertain and inform those who wish to learn more about this Oscar-nominated work. All video is in standard def.
The Coen brothers don't always hit the ball out of the park, but this quirky mix of humor, mystery, and violence remains one of the most memorable films of the 1990s. Original, well crafted, and expertly acted, 'Fargo' satisfies on many levels, and its upgraded video and audio make viewing this Oscar-winner better than ever. Is it worthy of a recommendation? Oh, yah!
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