“There’s more to life than a little bit of money you know. Don’t you know that?” A very pregnant police chief, at the wheel of her cruiser, expresses her exasperation with the sullen and silent psychopath in her back seat. “And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day,” she continues, unironically gesturing at the bleakest winter landscape, “well, I just don’t understand it.” The police chief is Marge Gunderson, played to perfection by actress Frances McDormand in her career-making and Academy Award® winning role in the Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Fargo” (1996), featured this month on MGM HD.
McDormand’s Chief Gunderson is one of the great all-time cinematic detectives and while Marge may not understand the reasons behind what brought her in contact with the above killer, not much else gets by her watchful gaze. The same isn’t true for nearly every other character in the Coen’s neo-noir study of greed and midwestern manners. It can be said that most Coen Brothers movies are about what goes wrong when characters embark on an endeavor just beyond their intellectual limitations. “Fargo” is piled as high as a midwinter snowbank with an all-star cast of not-so-bright characters.
The basic plot is set in motion when car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires low-level criminals Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife in order to extort ransom from his father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). From the start, nearly everything that can go awry does. The movie is filled with the trademarks of great Coen Brothers movies: distinct and colorful characters, tense scenes edited for maximum effect, and sudden and shocking exhibitions of violence that punctuate the action. The script, for which the Coen Brothers also won an Academy Award®, contains dialog as tightly wound and well timed as a Swiss watch. It’s a crime movie that ranks among the best of modern film noir.
But the most enduring legacy of “Fargo” may be the introduction of the culture and vernacular of Minnesota to the rest of the world. Natives of The Twin Cities area, the Coens returned to their home turf and turned their fine-tuned powers of observation on the environment in which they grew up. The flat nasal recitation of “you betcha,” “darn-tootin’” and “real good, then,” made famous a patois that is now as recognizable as any Texas drawl or Brooklyn accent. The flat backdrop of film, with its palette of nondescript whites and greys, placed the viewer in as specific location as any western shot in Monument Valley, Utah. And William H. Macy’s hangdog adherence to the polite customs of “Minnesota Nice,” even as he carried out an unspeakable plot, was perhaps one of the Coen’s most subversive and hilarious commentaries of all.
So, put on something warm, heat up some hot cocoa, and take a trip to “Fargo,” featured this month on MGM HD