Chills Up the Spine Movie review: 'Fargo' is a bitter, savage story about multiple murder in Minnesota and the pregnant police chief who unravels the crime. And you won't mind the snow.

March 08, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Some states have a nifty tradition of murder. There's bleak Kansas, with its wheat fields and white-trash roamers; there's New York, with its mobsters; Mississippi with its good-old boys high on corn likker, toting shotguns and ropes; and particularly Florida, with its flashy dope dealers, Tec-9s and sleek Corvettes.

But Minnesota? Like, Paul Bunyan on a bad-hair day? Mary Tyler Moore with PMS chirping Ted Baxter to death?

That all changes today, with the arrival of "Fargo," from Joel and Ethan Coen, set on the snow-blind Minnesota prairies. The Coens, who memorialized the desperate small-beer crimes of Texas a decade ago in "Blood Simple," have returned to film noir with a bitter, savage story of more folks driven blood-simple by greed, rage and stupidity.

The stupidity is a Coen trademark. The brothers -- Joel directs, Ethan produces, they both write -- aren't attracted to glamorous or heroic people, but to dumb ones. Their typical character doesn't really get it, can't see the big picture, operates off motives so base they'd shame a snail, following plans so moronic they'd embarrass a slug.

So it is with "Fargo," about a small-time loser who sets a plot in motion on the basic assumption that all things will go as planned. Of course, they don't because they can't, and a relatively simple scam explodes into a spasm of violence that leaves seven people dead and the snow spattered with blood.

And, did I tell you, it's a comedy?

Our hero is typical: A smart cop who figures it all out, goes after the bad guys and takes them down, one at a time, just like Dirty Harry. But with the Coens maybe there's no such thing as typical: She's also seven months pregnant.

Marge Gunderson (Fran- ces McDormand) is the chief of police in Brainerd, Minn., a small town 90 odd miles across the tundra from Minneapolis-St. Paul. She's so cheerful and chipper she makes Moore's legendarily upbeat Minnesotan Mary Richardson seem like a depressive personality. Nothing throws her, and when she examines two corpses stiffening in the snow, the blood on them coagulated into black Jell-O, she turns to her deputy and asks him to remind her to pick up some night-crawlers for her husband, a wildlife artist.

In fact, the Coens get at something rarely achieved in films, where the cops almost never have private lives because they're so absorbed into and consumed by the universe of violence.

Not Marge -- no, sir. She's from the Midwest, Minnesota style. She does her job, then puts it on the shelf and goes home for take-out from Arby's and a night of watching Johnny on the tube (it's 1987; Johnny's still on the tube). She may not have a tragic sense of life, but she has the conviction that rules are to be enforced and the commitment to duty to see that they are.

It seems for a bit that the sophisticated Coens are goofing on the poor peasants of the plains. Those cheery accents, driven by a substratum of Scandinavian heritage, bounce loonily into the cold air, unmoored by gravity, tragedy or profanity. We're not in Kansas anymore: We're in Minnesota.

"Darn it," someone will say, or "You're darn tootin'!" or "What the heck is going on?" with that last twist of Norwegian rhythm so that everything sounds like a question, "Cheese, but it's darn cold today, yah?"

But the secret text of "Fargo" isn't superiority, it's humanity: The Coens, who are from Minnesota, come to make us feel the texture of these chilled, repressed yappers.

There's Jerry Lundegaard (the brilliant William H. Macy), an oddly infantile man who has never quite made it on his own, though he's comfortably married to gruff millionaire Wade Gustafson's daughter, Jean. Jerry, in his desperate quest for success to validate himself in Wade's merciless eyes, has gotten himself deeply in debt.

Thus the original idea is his: to hire two men to kidnap Jean, go to Wade (Harve Presnell) for the huge ransom, give the thugs a small part of it and keep the rest for himself to pay off his debts. But in Minnesota nothing is simple: He hires big-talking small-timer Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and the stoic psychopath Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), whose response to everything is to start hitting or start blasting.

You can't find good help these days, can you? With Carl and Gaear aboard, the plan is doomed from the start; it teeters crazily toward chaos in the first few seconds, escalates into a shootout on the highway that leaves three frozen bodies in the snow, and then begins to disintegrate as the thugs fall out among themselves, Jerry falls out with Wade and slowly, surely Marge closes in.

It's a miracle: A tough, honest, bloody film set so far from the bright lights it feels as if it's on a different planet, yet knowable and absolutely compelling from start to finish.

"Fargo" is great American movie-making.

'Fargo'

Starring Frances McDormand and William H. Macy

Directed by Joel Coen

Released by Gramercy

Rating R (violence)

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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