After three period films in a row, the Coen Brothers finally return to the present day with Fargo (1996). (Well, almost the present day; the film is technically set in 1987, though it could've been set in 1996 without having any impact on the story). The Coens spent their first five films bouncing between genres, but Fargo finds them returning to the rural noir of their debut, Blood Simple (1984). After the uncharacteristically slapdash Hudsucker Proxy (1994) brought all of the duo's worst tendencies to the forefront, the return to streamlined, relatively modest drama is a relief. It isn't hard to see why Fargo was the film that finally brought the Coens near-universal acclaim from critics, award voters, and audiences. The modern-day midwestern setting assures that the Coens don't get too far outside of their comfort zone, and the simple story and reserved characterizations temper the brothers' weakness for shallow convolution and aimless misanthropy. In Fargo, the Coens have found a vehicle to amplify their strengths and downplay their persistent flaws. But evidence of those flaws still remains, and the Coens' good qualities haven't yet developed to the point that they can make a really great movie on their own.
The Coens' worldview is still the main unappealing quality of their films. Once again, the duo presents a plot that hinges entirely on the corruption and/or stupidity of all involved parties, though for once they provide a kind-hearted and resourceful hero. (Perhaps as an excuse for their cynicism, the Coens begin Fargo with a "based on real events" title card, but they have since admitted that the film is entirely fictional). North Dakota car dealer William H. Macy hires two sleazy contract criminals, blabbermouth Steve Buscemi and mute Peter Stormare, to kidnap his wife as a way to collect "ransom" money from her wealthy father. The goons are pulled over on the way to their rural Minnesota hideout, and wind up killing a state trooper and two random passerbies before fleeing. Small-town detective Frances McDormand investigates the murders, and gradually uncovers Macy's bungled conspiracy.
This isn't a bad setup for a small-scale noir story, and for the most part the Coens are able to keep the story focused and engaging. But, as usual, the Coens just don't seem to like any of their characters, or to even find any of them terribly interesting beyond their function in the plot and their one or two quirks. It isn't enough that Macy is a bad husband and father, but he's also an incompetent crook and a pathetically bad salesman. Buscemi is easily irritated and can't keep his focus on the task at hand, while Stormare lacks passion and resorts to violence at the drop of a hat. Macy's wife is a crude caricature of a Midwest housewife, and she is given so little personality that her offscreen death doesn't even register emotionally. By contrast, McDormand is virtually a saint, a woman who performs her job even while seven months pregnant, and uses simple common sense to solve an illogical crime. The excellent cast manages to make these fairly basic characters compelling – Macy, Buscemi, and McDormand virtually owe their careers to these roles – and they are a lot more colorful and interesting than the stick figures of Blood Simple. But the Coens still haven't managed to put a truly complex, plausibly human character on screen.
Though the Coens have barely developed their characterization skills, they have gotten even better at creating distinctive environments for those characters to play around in. The busy production designs of their last several films give way to a sparsely populated, wintery atmosphere beautifully captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Ice-damaged car windows, heavy snowsuits, and barren fields of snow make the cold almost palpable, and provide a fitting yet genuinely unique setting for a film noir. The Coens don't seem to be aiming for a "realistic" Midwestern setting – the characters' accents are accentuated to an almost condescending degree – but there is a musical quality to the best of their dialogue.
As usual, there are a couple of energetic, inventively staged setpieces, including a clumsy, nearly botched kidnapping, and the aforementioned highway massacre, which recalls Blood Simple's burial scene in masterful tension building. Fargo may be the Coens' most entertaining and well-made film to this point, but the level of their craftsmanship is still out of proportion to the simplicity of their ideas. The crime story is exciting, but it is in service of a few easy jokes about rural Midwesterners and a banal "money isn't everything" moral.
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