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Raising Minnesota

Photo by Michael Tackett

Straight-shooter: Small-town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) upholds Minnesota morals in "Fargo."

In 'Fargo,' the Coens turn from cynicism to sincerity

By Richard von Busack

The latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, Fargo, tells a tale of unambiguous morality in ambiguous, icily humorous terms. One especially significant scene sums up their style. A lowlife hood played by Steve Buscemi contemplates a crime on the top floor of a nearly empty parking structure at a Minnesota airport.

He circles his car through snow several inches deep, driving casually so as to avoid suspicion. Looping the car around 360 degrees, to throw invisible pursuers off the track, he parks and steals over to an unoccupied vehicle. He drops down to his knees, and scrapes off its registration sticker for his own use.

That kind of comic furtiveness runs all the way through the highly smart and strangely moving Fargo. The fear and desperation of Buscemi's character as he pursues the tiniest of prizes involves you even as you laugh at the pettiness of it all. The fact that the prize eventually grows to a fortune in a suitcase doesn't make the crime any grander.

Which is not the same as saying nothing is at stake. That's an obvious first assumption, because the Coens (Joel directs, both write) have made some fairly condescending films, such as Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink. In Fargo, their condescension deliberately boomerangs back into sincerity.

What seems--wrongly--to be contempt toward the blandness of Minnesota becomes kind of a tribute to it. The Coens achieve this turnaround mostly because the relentless detective Javert in pursuit of Buscemi and his fellow criminals is one Marge Gunderson, a very pregnant, nearly monosyllabic small-town police chief played beautifully by Frances McDormand.

The film is a reverie based on a true-life story. The names, we're assured, have been changed to protect the innocent. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a Minneapolis salaryman who works at his piratical father-in-law's car dealership, has dug a hole for himself with a clumsy scam. Needing a quick infusion of cash, Lundegaard cooks up a plan to have his wife kidnapped so that his father-in-law will pay the ransom, which Lundegaard can then split with the kidnappers.

He goes to Fargo, N.D. to find a kidnapper named Carl (Buscemi) and his mad-dog partner, Gaear (played by Peter Stormare, who personifies stolid malice). Thanks to the mad dog, the kidnapping is bungled, and three witnesses are killed. The father-in-law's own plans to take out the kidnappers leave both sides at odds, as the kidnapper and his contractor try to salvage the ransom.

Carl's efforts to fix the problem make it worse, and he's plagued by his own inability to enjoy the thrill of the crime, or even to buy a thrill, so to speak. Crime movies usually have a scene of the criminal enjoying a last fling with a bought woman, where we can see the poignant hopelessness of both of their longings before the criminal goes off to die. What we get in Fargo is Carl's joyless date with an escort, a woman more ill-favored than Courtney Love.

Carl's fate is to get beat up, shot and eventually reduced to nothingness, while his counterpart, Gunderson, grows in stature as she is led, indirectly, to the killers.

Fargo may be the Coens' best film since 1987's Raising Arizona, closing the circle with the earlier film by shooting in a white desert, as opposed to a painted one. In Raising Arizona, the kidnappers were extras from a magical-realist Roadrunner cartoon; in Fargo, they're swallowed up in the permafrost for the purposes of satire. Fargo is film blanc, for the locations, as well as for the flatness and lack of inflections in everyone's voice.

The Coens' interestingly odd approach to the material includes a basic lack of sympathy for the victim (who is practically an inanimate object) and a lack of compassion for Lundegaard's plight. Lundegaard is appealing only when he breaks out of his desperate eagerness never to displease anyone--family, customers, superiors. He's so full of smothered rage that he has to excuse himself to go have a private, shuddering fit of temper. Lundegaard is the most likable of the Coens' many emotionally blocked characters--in Miller's Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991)--characters who burst rather than unfold.

The recurring figures of human emotional blocks in the Coens' films may have something to do with growing up in Minnesota, as the filmmakers did. British reserve has nothing on Minnesota reserve. If you believe in national character--and they do believe in it up there, as only the grandchildren of immigrants do--it's the Scandinavian streak, the same impenetrability, that drives Bergman characters mad.

The reserve is even reflected in the language, which has been described as "Minnesota Indirect" and must have been developed to avoid friction during snowbound weeks. My old girlfriend was born in St. Cloud, and she explained the Minnesota Indirect speech with an example sentence: "Most fellas wouldn't smoke so close to a gasoline pump."

Fargo depends on indirection as well as direction for its impact. Keeping the film as free of the most obvious machinery of crime movies as possible, we hear an account of a confrontation secondhand instead of seeing it. In one dryly comic scene, a rural bartender calls Gunderson to report an incident that might contain a clue to the murderers she seeking. He'd been serving drinks to a rough customer--our mad dog as it happens--and the bartender had been jollying him along when he got out of line.

The bartender says without intonation of amusement, "He said he killed this other guy for giving him trouble. Then he asked me what I thought of that. I said, 'I thought it didn't sound like a very good deal for that other guy.' "

A simple reading of Fargo would be to consider everyone in it a boob, but that ignores the fondness underneath the precise vision. Mark Twain, Randy Newman, Garrison Keillor (Fargo is a Sam Fuller version of Lake Wobegon Days) are all satirists who have managed to have it both ways, to create a comically grim picture of life in extremes, combined with an unspoken affectionate quality. The Coen brothers, working the same territory, make it seem as if the characters have been patronized at first--until you realize that everybody in a Coen brothers movie is meant to be funny. It's only when the jokes don't work that things looks snide. The jokes work in Fargo, and the acting is nicely smaller-than-life.

Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink were both thrown out of balance by the personalities of actors either too grand (Albert Finney, John Goodman) or too quirky (John Turturro) to flatten into the stylized figures the Coens want. At their worst, and the Coens have had a lot of worst, they were caught somewhere in between comedy and horror in the slow moments in Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing, which resulted in an anxious tedium.

The Coens have made movies of almost-unwatchable cynicism, and it was proving a dead end for them. Or so it seemed after the amusingpastiche The Hudsucker Proxy. Saying this, it's a tribute to the Coens that they started from roughly the same sensibility as Robert Zemeckis (who made the other great urban desert comedy, Used Cars) and got more difficult as the years went by, getting meaner as Zemeckis became more heartwarming (with Forrest Gump).

The Coens were originally cold, kinetic filmmakers, in love with watching the balls carom off of one another. When you like flat, speedy rebound movies, and you start to age, you have a few choices: You can exult in your roots in trash cinema (as Sam Raimi has done). You can look for protégés. Last, and most risky, you can take go to the next step, seeking a balance between the heartlessness of pure style and the heart's longing for meaning. This is what the Coens have accomplished in Fargo.

McDormand's character, in a blank background, starts as a cipher but goes on to start working the edge of the role until you see shades of white in her character.

We see her eating for two and thinking over--as we imagine--the limits of her life. Her discontent, however, is as illusory as her shallowness. A man she's known since she attended high school makes a sobbing pass at her, and she handles him with such intuitive poise that it's only a few scenes later that we realize how smart she was.

The particular gift of the Coens, when they do it right, is building the sentiment in their characters until it pays off in a bold finale. An example is the dream of the kidnapper H.I. in Raising Arizona. Even though H.I. sees his future as essentially a series of beautiful television commercials, the sequence still carries an emotional impact. H.I., however, gets a slightly less cruel lesson in the fate of the transgressor than Gunderson delivers in Fargo. ("There's what's right, and then there's what right, and never the twain shall meet," he says, uncertainly, knowing that it's not true.)

Gunderson's short closing monologue in Fargo leaves a lot unsaid. In a few words, she tells us what it means to live on the right side of the law: how much it costs and how much it's worth. It's the kind of moral authority movies are drooling to summon these days but which always looks as fishy as televangelism when Hollywood tries it.

McDormand's character earns her authority through putting up with the cold, a barren landscape, an inexpressive marriage and hard work. All of these are the source of her indomitable nonchalance even in the face of a triple homicide. ("Oh, jeez," she says, almost without inflection, looking into a car in which a woman has been shot to death.) This woman, who is easy to misread as a female Forrest Gump, becomes a great heroine.

At the end, the Coens signal their admiration for Gunderson in a neat visual moment. The mascot of her small town is a colossal statute of Paul Bunyan in the middle of nowhere. The Coens use the first sight of it as a joke about bad taste, the second as a hostile idol glaring at the fleeing Carl. Lastly, it's there as a mirror of McDormand's north-country integrity: a reminder that there are giants in these days.

Fargo (R; 110 min.), directed by Joel Coen, written by Ethan and Joel Coen, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy.

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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