The slow unraveling of the perfect crime gone awry has long been an almost irresistible movie thriller theme. In “Fargo,” iconoclastic filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen manage the precarious balancing act of respecting genre conventions and simultaneously pushing them to an almost surrealistic extreme. This darkly humorous yarn will strike a chord with sophisticated audiences and has the same domestic commercial crossover potential for Gramercy as “The Usual Suspects,” with international outlook strong as well.
Following the marketplace debacle of “The Hudsucker Proxy,” the new Coen brothers outing demonstrates an assurance viewing classic themes from a slightly askew perspective. Without demeaning its characters or mangling policier procedures, pic, which is based on true events of 1987, is very funny stuff.
Setup involves Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a financially overextended Minneapolis car salesman. His fiscal desperation having reached the point of no return, he hires two lumbering ex-cons, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife. He’ll then secure the ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell), pay off the goons and get out of debt.
After abducting Jean Lundegaard, the duo head for a cabin in northern Minnesota. Along the way, they’re stopped by a state trooper on a seemingly minor infraction, and the loquacious Carl attempts to talk his way out of the situation. Gaear simply pulls a gun and shoots the cop in the head. The fatality list that wintry night grows to include a man and his child who happen to pass by moments later.
The following morning, local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) wakes up with a triple homicide on her hands. Well into her second trimester, she pulls on her mukluks, drives to the crime scene and makes a first-class assessment ofwhat transpired. It’s not anythinglike the typical goings-on in Paul Bunyan country.
Despite the unexpected twists in the kidnap scheme, the conspirators proceed to the next stage in their plan — collecting the ransom — hoping that the random murders won’t be connected to the primary activity. Meanwhile, Marge waddles through the available clues that will inextricably link the incidents.
The picture’s disarming strength is its matter-of-fact progression along the two fronts of the main and incidental crimes.
“Fargo” is unquestionably blessed by its first-rate cast. Though McDormand, Macy and Buscemi have few scenes together, they work like an ensemble. The trio and Stormare go for a simple, naturalistic quality right down to the characters’clothing and the amusingly flat ac-cent of the upper Midwestern U.S. There are also strong support turns from the too-long absent (from the screen) Harve Presnell, as Jerry’s tough-as-nails father-in-law, and from Steve Park, who’s touching as a former classmate of Marge’s who effects a brief reunion.
That quality spills over into the tech area. The brothers work hard to convey the essence of direct, documentary-style filmmaking, and they create a masterful illusion. There’s not a single conventional angle employed by d.p. Roger Deakins , and the complex narrative is aptly supported by virtually invisible transitions from editor Roderick Jaynes.
The film is absorbing less for plot machinations than for the people who populate the piece. Once we know the individuals, it’s their personal interactions that prove striking and emotional — Marge’s concern for her husband, a wildlife painter, or Jerry’s explanation to his son about “mom’s” disappearance. “Fargo” is a strikingly mature, uniqueentertainment that plays on many levels … all satisfying.