The movies of Joel and Ethan Coen are not so much an acquired taste as a predilection: Either you respond to their poker-faced sense of humor, their film-geek fascination with gore, and their lit-major affection for operatic plots, or you find them cold, weird little puppies. Those who don’t care for the Coen style say that the brothers’ six-film oeuvre — Joel directs, Ethan produces, both write — is self-consciously clever, ironic, and slow-moving at best, mean at worst. These critics announce, ”Those two haven’t done anything as good as their first film, Blood Simple. And that was 11 years ago.”
Those, on the other hand, who dig the Coens’-eye view of the world — like me — see in the brothers’ artistic choices such a fresh, inventive sense of storytelling that we’re willing to be carried wherever the boys want to take us. On the run with Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage as kidnappers in Raising Arizona? Love it. In the mists with Gabriel Byrne as a broody Irish mobster in Miller’s Crossing? Beautiful. Watching wallpaper peel in Barton Fink? Why not? At least we can’t guess the ending in the first 10 minutes. And still we supporters announce, ”Nothing the pair has done has been quite as arresting as Blood Simple.”
Until now. In Fargo, the Coens’ dizzily rich, witty, and satisfying new movie, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is in a pickle. He’s a Minneapolis car salesman, foursquare on the outside and weaselly on the inside, who digs himself deep into debt. So he dreams up a desperate scheme: He’ll hire two lowlifes (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, he’ll finagle the ransom from his wealthy father-in-law, and he’ll keep the cash after cutting the thugs in on a percentage. Nothing, suffice it to say, goes right; everything goes terribly wrong, and pretty soon three homicides outside of town have brought the local, very pregnant police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), out to investigate.
The joy of Fargo — the reason the movie has won such enthusiastic critical praise (and such a strong start at art houses) — is that everything that goes wrong does so in a perfectly realized universe of icebound Minnesotan understatement, a landscape so muffled by snow and Scandinavian-bred, low-affect courtesy that even murderous passion comes out goofy. Fargo the movie has little to do with Fargo the small North Dakota city (Lundegaard meets the kidnappers there to set the plan in motion, that’s about it) but everything to do with geography as a state of mind: The Coens have dug deep into the frozen earth of their own Minnesota heritage to create a gleeful hotbed of mishap. What sets the movie in its own special zip code is the overlay of ordinariness and the banality of regional conversational gambits (”ah, jeez,” ”yah, sure,” ”real fine”) that cover even the most shocking goings-on with a crazy glaze of comedy.
The Coens have sometimes been accused of being showy wiseacres who enjoy making smarty-pants fun of the pleasantry-spouting, chicken-fricassee-eating neighbors of their childhood. I don’t buy the rap. Played pitch perfect by Macy, Lundegaard is a coward and a laughable schemer, but he also projects a pathos that could make you weep, if you’re in the mood. (When he’s thwarted in one attempt to ”borrow” money from his father-in-law, we watch him from an overhead shot as he trudges to his iced-over car, which sits alone in a parking lot blotted out with snow — a miserable man in frozen hell.) Buscemi (Living in Oblivion) and Stormare (Damage) play inept, amoral scum, but scum who seethe and squabble with very particular wacko energy.
Besides, warming the core of Fargo is McDormand (Beyond Rangoon) as Marge, and I can think of few movies that would have room for a female character of such formidable gifts. Waddling calmly through chaos in her down-filled police parka, methodically and courteously assembling clues and suspects, providing unwavering emotional support to her placid husband (he paints pictures of ducks), fending off an unwanted admirer, or firing a gun with expert aim when necessary, Marge is a true Coen-style pioneer woman. It’s no big deal to her townsfolk that she’s the chief of police, or that she’s pregnant, or that she’s handling a sensational triple homicide; it’s also no big deal that she stops on the way back from the crime scene to pick up fishing worms for her husband. (In real life, McDormand’s husband is Joel Coen.) If Marge represents everything in a person that’s decent, compassionate, competent, and lovable to these filmmaking brothers, then you know what? The guys have their hearts in the right place, not just their clever heads.