Combustible Celluloid
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With: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Pressnell, Kristin Rudrüd, Tony Denman, Steven Reevis, Larissa Kokernot, Melissa Peterman, Gary Houston, Sally Wingert
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directed by: Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language and sexuality
Running Time: 98
Date: 03/07/1996

Fargo (1996)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Oh Yah... Real Good

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Margie stumps around in the frozen, snowy landscape, eight months pregnant and looking every week of it. At first we may worry a little about her, but we soon find out that Margie's on the ball. She's a sharp cookie. She can really handle herself. But that doesn't stop us from worrying about her.

That's the secret to the success of Joel and Ethan Coen's masterpiece, Fargo (1996), which was nominated for a boatload of Oscars and won two, for Best Screenplay (by the Coens) and Best Actress for Frances McDormand, who plays Margie.

I just viewed Fargo for about the sixth time on a new DVD, and I was stunned that Margie doesn't make her first appearance in the film until 30 minutes in. She takes over the whole picture so completely that she seems like the star. Actor William H. Macy takes up more screen time, and yet he was considered a "Supporting Actor" (though he's no slouch himself).

Why do we like Margie so much? She doesn't seem to have any flaws in any way. She's not a drug addict or a serial killer or a goofy teenager trying to figure out who to take to the prom. She's happily married and she's pregnant. She's not rich by any means. Her police work is tops. She just seems like an ordinary Jane. And she is, somewhat. We relate to her as we relate to everyman, like James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). But not even James Stewart could handle a situation like Margie can. Under pressure, she's more like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry (1971). Specifically, her figuring out the nature of the three murders on the dark highway between Brainerd and Fargo, and her fending off the advances of a would-be suitor.

That particular scene, which has an Asian ex-classmate of Margie's asking her out and making passes at her, then breaking down in tears of loneliness, is a highly criticized scene. Just because it doesn't "move the plot forward," many think it doesn't belong. But it's the key to Margie. Her handling of the situation with grace and humor ("I think you'd better sit over there--that way I don't have to keep looking over at you.") gives us confidence in her and compassion for her. It enriches her in ways that don't seem obvious.

The other half of the movie belongs to William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the car salesman who gets himself in a heap of hot water by hiring two morons (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife so that he can get the large sum of money he desperately needs. We're never told why he needs this money, but the look on his face tells us that he just needs it, that's all. Jerry just wants to be a normal guy, but he isn't. He tries really hard, but nothing he does seems to work out. Even his plan to fax over non-existent serial numbers for his stolen car (hoping the fax machine would obscure the numbers) backfires. Macy's best scene is when he emerges in failure from a meeting with his father in law and sadly begins to scrape the ice off his car windshield. (We see him from a high angle, showing the empty, snowy-white parking lot.) As he gets more and more frustrated, he yelps and stomps and pounds on the car. Then, he picks up the scraper and begins again.

That small gesture is why we care so much for Jerry, even though he's a crook. The Coen brothers rarely give us human traits, the basic things, that we can grasp onto. They're masters of making images and toying with us and turning film on its ear, but with the exception of Fargo, they've not been entirely successful at making us feel. There's no question that it's a highly original crime movie with a singular pace, tone, and language, but with Margie and Jerry at its heart, it can't go wrong.

A 2003 special edition of the Coen Brothers' greatest film Fargo (1996, MGM/UA, $24.98) has arrived, replacing the out-of-print, movie-only version. This disc has a making-of doc and a commentary track by cinematographer Roger Deakins.

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