Boy, is this a good movie. In its bare bones it is a crime drama but the Coen brothers constantly undercut the seriousness with a quirky irony. The acting, the script, and the direction lift the movie light years above most of the movies of its decade.
The performances, for instance, everyone speaks with what passes for an upper Midwestern accent, a very pronounced accent, let’s say. So when characters are doing wicked things on screen, it’s rather like watching people dressed in clown suits do nasty things. It’s utterly impossible to take it very seriously — only just seriously enough for us to feel sorry for the victims and to disapprove of the bad guys, but no more than that.
Everyone except the two killers are forced by their culture to speak and act cheerfully. They never swear either. “You’re darn tootin’,” they say. The casting couldn’t be better, with Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, and Bill Macy outstanding.
The script is likewise splendidly done. It’s full of scenes that seem peripheral except that they add to our understanding of the characters and often lead to later payoffs. Without taking the space to describe them, I will simply mention the scene in the restaurant between MacDormand and her Japanese friend from high school. Why is it in there at all? (My God, those hotel restaurants are depressingly ugly.) Well — among other things, such as establishing the kind of milieu these folks consider Ritzy, it tells us quite a bit about how MacDormand handles attempts to violate her inherent good nature. When the Japanese guy tries to sit next to her she tells him firmly that she’d prefer it if he sat across the table so that she can see him more easily. When he breaks down in tears she whispers that it’s all okay. She is polite, a little distant without being unfriendly, completely practical, and absolutely iron bound in her values. Nobody is going to take advantage of or discompose this hyper pregnant babe. Further, this scene is a set up for a later one. After MacDormand learns that the Japanese guy has told her a gaggle of lies, she wakes up to the fact that, yes, people can tell untruths — and she returns to interview Macy a second time.
In another scene, when she’s pressing one of the criminals during an interview, he excuses himself for a moment and she spots him taking off in his car. She exclaims, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, he’s FLEEIN’ THE INTERVIEW.” It’s impossible to improve on a line like that, or on MacDormand’s delivery of it.
The third element of the film that makes it superior is the direction. The pauses come at the right times. A woman is sitting on her couch watching a soap opera on TV. Through the glass door of her apartment she sees a man approach. He’s wearing a black ski mask and carrying a crowbar. He walks up to her door and shades his eyes while trying to peer inside. Now in an ordinary action movie, by this time the woman would be screeching and speeding down the hallway. Not here. The victim sits there staring at the intruder as he fiddles at the door, half horrified and half curious. “Who is this guy? He’s not the meter reader, is he?” Coen the director has an eye for the suggestive picturesque too. Bill Macy has asked his father-in-law for a large loan for some sure-fire business proposition, but Dad offers him only a finder’s fee. We see Macy’s deflated face as his disappointment sets in. Cut. Now we’re looking at a white screen punctuated by four or five bare trees equidistant from one another, and there is a tiny car in the middle of the whiteness. Then Macy’s tiny figure trudges into the bottom of the shot and we realize we’re looking at a snow-filled parking lot with only one ordinary-sized car in the center of it.
Wintery weather plays an important part in the movie. People die in it, drive off the road because of it, stand shivering in it. Two freezing people are conversing on the street while one shovels snow. The shoveler stops, gazes up at the sky, and remarks that it “ought to be really cold tomorrow.” Cars and ambulances tend to drive in and out of white outs during blizzards and blowing snow. MacDormand is driving her murdering prisoner through a blank white landscape in which nothing much is visible and she is mildly remonstrating with him, saying something like, “Why did you do it, for a little bit of money? It’s a perfect day, and here you are.” (A perfect day!) There are seven murders in this movie. Only three take place on screen. The others either take place off screen or else the director has the good sense to cut at the moment the gun fires or the ax blade lands.
“Fargo” is one of perhaps half a dozen movies from the 1990s that I would consider buying on DVD. It’s an original and refreshingly adult picture. Don’t miss it!!