Sunday, June 8, 2014

Classics Of Weird Noir Cinema, Fargo Remains Entertaining, But Not Incredible.

The Good: Decent acting, Mood, Quirky characters
The Bad: Quirky for the sake of quirky, Mood, Most of the characters are unlikable
The Basics: Set in Minneapolis, MN and Fargo, ND, the classic noir film by Joel and Ethan Coen is all about setting and weird characters as opposed to having a truly original or engaging plot.

I’ve gotten to an interesting place as a film reviewer where I get the occasional request from readers with movies they want me to review. I get that there is a value to having a reviewer review a film that one already knows they like; comparing our own opinion to those of a reviewer whose other reviews we’ve read provides us with a baseline of sorts. When we read how a critic evaluates works we know, we can better evaluate how to take their ratings on movies we’ve yet to see. One of the films on the extensive list that one reader sent me that I had been meaning rewatch was Fargo.

Fargo was originally released when I was in college and I recall seeing it once before about a year after its original theatrical release. While my peers in the writing program at my college seemed to be universally agog about Fargo, I remembered seeing it and being decidedly more neutral to the film. Watching Fargo again today – for the first time in almost twenty years – what surprised me most about the movie was how I had the exact same ambivalence to it now. Around the same time that I saw Fargo, I watched The Big Lebowski and I did not like that Coen Brothers movie. Last year, I saw The Big Lebowski again and absolutely loved it; so it is surprising with all of the changes in my life and viewpoints that I would see Fargo again and have absolutely no change in reaction to the film. Fargo is good, but not great; it is written to be quirky for the sake of quirky and is supposedly based upon events that truly happened, though they are presented with the Coen Brothers (now) trademark sense of unsettling weirdness. But outside the silly setting and the ludicrous (but accurate) dialect of the northern mid-western American accent, Fargo is a remarkably straightforward crime film. Unlike something like Twin Peaks (reviewed here!) that delivers strange and appears to be set in a completely real world, but has supernatural elements infused with the weird setting, Fargo is just a bunch of lowbrow characters stuck in a barren and desolate place. The result is a violent comedy that is perpetrated by halfwits and solved by a slower-than-average police officer in a film that sets out to be weird and accomplishes that without any sense of whimsy to it.

In the icy wasteland of Fargo, North Dakota, Jerry Lundegaard delivers a car to Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (two hoods for hire) as part of the payment he negotiated for them to abduct his own wife. The deal he Jerry strikes with the pair is that they will abduct his wife and Jerry will split the ransom with the two criminals, because he is in some financial problems and needs money from his father-in-law (who he won’t ask for the cash). Even as Jerry tries to get the money together to buy a parking lot of his own, Carl and Gaear break into Jerry’s home in Minneapolis to abduct Jerry’s wife, Jean. But Carl and Gaear are pretty inept and between Jean falling down the stairs and the pair running into a highway patrol officer who cannot be bribed by Carl, the abduction does not go as planned. After killing the patrol officer and two passersby who see Carl moving the officer’s body, Carl and Gaear try to lay low with Jean as their prisoner.

The Fargo police officer Marge Gunderson is called to investigate the triple homicide and she pieces together the story of Carl and Gaear without having any idea of the Lundegaard abduction. Following the clues left by the dead police officer, the pregnant Gunderson tracks down the car Jerry used as a down payment to the hoods. As she investigates the crime, Jerry convinces his father-in-law to make the payoff to the ransomers. But things go wrong for Carl when Wade (Jerry’s father-in-law) shows up to pay him off and in the gunfight that ensues, Carl is wounded and Wade is killed. As Marge closes in on Carl and Gaear, the two hoods have a showdown that causes Jerry’s whole plan to come unraveled.

Joel and Ethan Coen are masterful writers and even with Fargo, their direction is solid and the film is executed well. Utilizing minimal soundtrack, quite a few wide shots filled with snow and emptiness, Fargo is a very different-feeling film, even now. But what Fargo is not is exciting. The characters are largely unlikable and in trying to create a very specific time and place, the Coen brothers make a movie that feels like it is populated by mentally challenged criminals and law enforcement agents. The tongue-in-cheek comedy of Fargo comes at the expense of truly caring about any of the characters.

Actress Frances McDormand portrays Marge illustrates her incredible range. Completely devoid of the confidence and authority of her character from, for example, Transformers 3 (reviewed here!), McDormand makes Marge smart but understated and somewhat bland. William H. Macy plays Jerry as a complete loser without the geeky quality or simple lack of confidence with which he played so many of his subsequent recognizable movie roles. Steve Buscemi (Carl), Peter Stormare, and Harve Presnell round out the main cast in a very masculine film. Fargo is not a film likely to sell anyone on the merits of masculinity as all of the men in the film are corrupt, selfish, greedy, or complete milquetoasts. The performances, though, are adequate to make the characters seem like real people in the Coen Brother’s cinematic universe.

Sadly, the result is not enough to recommend. Whatever audacity exists in Fargo, it is undone by the mundane nature of the plot and mood of the film. The acting balances against the lack of interesting characters, though Fargo is packed with characters who have their quirks, but those eccentricities do not add up to anything at all exceptional.

For other works by the Coen Brothers, check out my reviews of:
True Grit
Burn After Reading
No Country For Old Men
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Big Lebowski
Miller’s Crossing


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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