For most filmmakers, the chillingly amusing body-count comedy that is "Fargo" would be an act of daring. For the writing-directing-producing team of Joel and Ethan Coen, however, it is a welcome piece of retrenchment.
It's been almost a decade since "Raising Arizona," the last small-scale whacked-out piece of business from the Coens. In the years since, with "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy," the visual side of their work got progressively grand and more ambitious while the jokes got increasingly difficult to recognize.
With "Fargo," the brothers not only return to their stylistic roots, they actually go back to their hometown of Minneapolis to do their version of a true-crime tale that, "out of respect for the dead" (or so the screen tells us), tries to stay as close to the facts as the boys can manage.
And though the Coens have built their reputation on quirky characters, with Marge Gunderson, the cheerful, chipper and very much pregnant chief of police of Brainerd, Minn., proud home of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe, they've done something quite special.
Chief Gunderson was created by the Coens specifically for Frances McDormand (she's married to director/co-writer Joel) and they've been rewarded by a brilliant and unblinking comic performance. Adding a girlish lilt to a board-flat Midwestern accent and a line of patter whose staples include "Thanks a bunch" and "You got that right," the happily married (to a phlegmatic wildlife painter) chief sounds as if her mind were frozen solid. But it's one of this movie's many small jokes that in a scenario heavy with dolts, fools and miscreants, she turns out to be the most competent person around.
"Fargo" is not just this movie's title, it's the snowed-in town in North Dakota where Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) confronts journeyman thugs Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) with a proposition: Kidnap my wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud), and we'll split whatever ransom we can bludgeon out of her wealthy but irascible father, Wade (Harve Presnell).
The pact sealed, Jerry heads back to the Twin Cities, where we are witness to his normal life as a shyster car salesman, a compulsive liar with a hale manner and a bright voice whose amorality is paralleled by a willingness to whine when things don't go his way. Which is all the time.
While Jerry is trying to wheedle his way into one of father-in-law Wade's sweet deals, Carl and Gaear go into action and are revealed to be mismatched as well as inept. The sharp-tongued Carl is a constant talker and complainer, while Gaear, whose accent is as unplaceable as his name, is a thick-headed blond of few words ("We stop at pancake house" is a major statement) and violent, out-of-control actions.
Jerry's kidnapping scheme was never destined to be the crime of the century, but the combination of greed, stupidity and chest-thumping behavior it calls forth soon has all participants in over their heads and heading for darkly amusing disaster. And who but Chief Gunderson gets pushed into the heart of the fray.
Perhaps because it is their home turf, the Coens know how to skewer their Minnesota compatriots, and much of the fun of "Fargo" is discovering how much humor they can locate in protagonists who have to dress for heavy weather.
As usual, the brothers' brand of fun gives so little away you have to look twice to be sure it's there. And their otherwise low-key style also includes considerable amount of Grand Guignol carnage and a bloody appreciation of the grotesque. But with the perfect assist from their actors, all of whom are well in on the joke, this affectionate look at the frozen North brings the Coens back in from the cold.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, language and sexuality. Times guidelines: considerable gore.
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Frances McDormand: Chief Marge Gunderson
Steve Buscemi: Carl Showalter
Peter Stormare: Gaear Grimsrud
William H. Macy: Jerry Lundegaard
Harve Presnell: Wade Gustafson
A Working Title Films production, released by Gramercy Pictures. Director Joel Coen. Producer Ethan Coen. Executive producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Screenplay Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editor Roderick Jaynes. Costumes Mary Zophres. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Rick Heinrichs. Art director Thomas P. Wilkins. Set decorator Lauri Gaffin. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.