Raising the Coen Brothers

Fans of black comedy and fiendishly frisky film noir rejoice: The Coen brothers are back! The savagely funny Fargo is a vicious sidesplitter, easily the drollest, hippest, sweetest satire Joel and Ethan Coen have dreamed up since 1987's Raising Arizona. The film marks a return to form for the sick siblings whose joint moviemaking career -- they always share writing, directing, producing, and editing duties -- had followed a downward trajectory that reached its nadir with 1994's big-budget (by the Coens' standards, anyway) turkey The Hudsucker Proxy. Fargo recalls the cheeky spirit of Blood Simple, the pair's hell-bent-for-leather 1984 debut. Like that audaciously assured coming-out party, Fargo squeezes both dramatic tension and comic relief from a tale of small-town treachery, tapping into spontaneously combusting violence and twisted character-driven humor.

Sly wit, perverse camerawork, and characterizations that seem at once loving and lacerating permeate the Coen brothers' work. The duo has taken some critical hits for the crime of allegedly appearing condescending toward their regular-folk characters. But those who lob such charges grossly oversimplify the matter. One of the brothers' greatest assets is their ability to simultaneously smile on and poke fun at their creations. For example, Fargo's heroine, pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Blood Simple's Frances McDormand) is low-key to a fault, begins every other sentence with the word "yeah" (pronounced "yah"), and utilizes quaint phrases such as "in a jiff." Although she may seem terminally polite and more concerned about the source of her next lunch buffet than she is about catching a killer, don't let that fool you. This lady cop knows how to play hardball when she needs to. Marge may battle morning sickness during her examination of a snow-covered crime scene, but she doesn't back down from an armed confrontation with a ruthless murderer.

Just as Dan Hedaya's sleazy Texas bar owner set Blood Simple's plot in motion by hiring a lowlife private detective to kill his wife, so too scamming car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (a cartoonishly hapless William H. Macy) kicks off the fun in Fargo by procuring a pair of bumbling bad guys -- the loquacious Carl Showalter (bug-eyed Steve Buscemi as yet another hilariously caffeinated motormouth) and the silent loose cannon Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) -- to kidnap his squeaky-voiced spouse Jean (Kristin Rudrud). Jerry intends to pay off the oafish thugs with a tiny fraction of the million-dollar ransom he hopes to collect from Jean's rich, despotic father Wade (Harve Presnell). (The powerful-guy-behind-a-desk is a recurring motif in Coen brothers films. Wade is Fargo's.)

Wade, no stranger to double-dealing in the name of business, doesn't much care for his spineless son-in-law. Their tense relationship (and the Coen brothers' talent for crafting sharp dialogue) can best be summed up by one exchange following the car salesman's attempt to convince Wade to finance a real estate deal:

"This could work out real good for me and Jean and [the Lundegaards' son] Scotty," Jerry pleads.

"Jean and Scotty never have to worry," Wade growls.
But Jerry certainly does. First, Jean nearly eludes her blundering abductors. Then a cop stops the car driven by the two fleeing crooks (with Jean bound and gagged and bundled up in the back seat) because Carl forgot to screw on the license tags. Carl's pathetic attempt to talk, then bribe, his way out of trouble only makes the lawman more suspicious. Gaear intervenes. When Jerry finally hears from his blundering accomplices, Carl informs him that "circumstances have changed, Jerry. Acts of God. Force majeur. Blood has been shed. We've incurred risk."

Coen brothers films have provided more than their share of outstanding performances: Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh up to their scuzzy necks in duplicity in Blood Simple; Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter as the star-crossed white-trash lovers in Raising Arizona; and now William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi in Fargo. Buscemi, with his rheumy eyes and lips drawn tight over protruding teeth, is perfectly cast as the chatterbox who isn't quite as intelligent as he thinks he is. And Macy beautifully conveys the transparent desperation of a man who long ago mortgaged his soul and now wants to refinance.

But the actors merely ride shotgun on this stagecoach. Joel and Ethan Coen hold the reins. It was a long and bumpy trip from Arizona to Fargo, but they made it. Welcome back, fellas.

Written by Joel and Ethan Coen; directed by Joel Coen; with Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Peter Stormare, Kristin Rudrud, and Harve Presnell.


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