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(1996) **** R
99 min. Gramercy Pictures. Director: Joel Coen. Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Kristen Rudrud.

/content/films/3429/1.jpgThe Coen Brothers have always loved to go far, a tactic they don't forgo in Fargo. No doubt surprising even themselves, this 1996 crime comedy got Joel and Ethan Coen taken more seriously than ever, to the tune of seven Oscar nominations (and wins for the Coens' screenplay and Frances McDormand's leading performance). The film's message is a simple one: crime doesn't pay, so keep it simple, stupid.

With their customary irreverence, the Coens take nothing seriously in Fargo, beginning with a title card proclaiming in capital letters "THIS IS A TRUE STORY" which occured in Minnesota in 1987. "At the request of the survivors," the Coens claim, "the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred." This latter point would be a lie under any circumstances, but especially in this case, loosely inspired by various police blotter items into an entirely original fiction. Of course, this crafty tactic gives the brothers a head start with the audience in their suspension of disbelief. Besides, they clue the audience in to the tongue-in-cheek nature of their "true crime" story by repeatedly displaying a giant Paul Bunyan statue at the entrance of Brainerd, Minnesota (only one brief scene actually takes place in Fargo, North Dakota). So, the Coens no doubt figure, anyone who believes the credit claim that Minnesota-bred Prince plays "Victim in Field" probably deserves what they get.

Fargo pits one smart cookie against several sure-fire nominees for the Darwin Awards. Chief among the latter is quintessential schmuck Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), the executive sales manager at Gustafson Motors (a nondescript loser eventually distinguished only by his spectacular failure, Jerry doesn't stand out among twenty-nine other headshots of white salesmen in suits and ties). Jerry has uncomfortable family dinners with wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), son Scotty (Tony Denman), and gruff, emasculating father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell), a big wheel who owns the car lot, among other business ventures. When finances become claustrophobically problematic, Jerry determines to have his wife kidnapped by two hoods--"funny-looking" Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and stoic Swede Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare)--to squeeze Wade for ransom cash. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan; rather, Jerry and his co-conspirators are subject to Murphy's Law.

Enter pregnant Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand), whose sharpness on the job finally getsput to good use. She's not only smarter than all of her local police colleagues, but in following a trail of messes, she swiftly gains on the floundering crooks. Their default tactics involve either bloody violence--including some nastiness involving a woodchipper--or the old-fashioned "cut and run," but if there's little doubt Marge will solve the crime, there's considerable tension around what will happen when she and her unborn child corner truly desperate men.

Fargo is often targeted as emblematic of the Coens' superiority to their characters, and that perception isn't off-base. Most of the characters in Fargo are simple rubes at best and aggressive idiots at worst (even José Feliciano gets what amounts to a backwards-complementary cameo). But the tone of condescension is effectively turned around by Margie, a sweet, loveable character who demonstrates serious skills and the equilibrium to cherish a lovely marriage with caring husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). Underestimate her at your peril.

Having been born and raised in Minneapolis suburb St. James Park, the Coens also pinpoint the with its Great White Northern-style culture (hockey and hearty homestyle buffets) and weather that serves as a metaphor: white skies, blankets of snow, and sheets of ice creating an existential void that particularly bedevils Jerry (who cracks while trying to scrape ice off his windshield). Most of all, they capture the preternatural politeness of "Minnesota nice": "Oh, jeez," "For Pete's sake," "You're darn tootin'," "Yah, you betcha."

/content/films/3429/2.jpgThe cast is impeccable to a one, all the way down to the unbearably sad-funny one-scene performance of Steve Park as Margie's pathetic former schoolmate Mike Yanagita (Coen buddy Bruce Campbell also pops up in a cameo). McDormand certainly deserved her Oscar, and Macy beings every ounce of his Mamet-land experience to his incisive tragicomic study of an ill-equipped man under mounting pressure: their "interview" scene together is a classic screen duet. The Oscar-nominated work of cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor "Roderick Jaynes" is also second-to-none, and it's a crime composer Carter Burwell didn't get his own nod for his insinuating score. With its invariably witty dialogue and a plot that moves at a nice clip, Fargo entertainingly covers a lot of snowy ground.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0

Street date: 5/12/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In its Blu-ray debut, Fargo gets a revelatory hi-def upgrade. Where it counts, vibrant color helps this transfer to pop (especially by contrast to the snowy landscapes that otherwise dominate the film). And despite the film's advancing age and history of so-so transfers, the new picture is rock solid in all respects, including significantly more detail and improved 1.78:1 framing. With its crisp clarity, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 also serves as a best-yet presentation.

Bonus features are largely but not entirely mainted from the DVD special edition. There's a priceless but not broadly appealing audio commentary with director of photography Roger Deakins. Though they'll find some gaps in the track, cinematography students will hang on every word about Deakins' Oscar-nominated work. Also an option: an appealingly random Trivia Track--enterprising multi-taskers may want to listen to Deakins and read the Trivia Track in a single sitting.

The documentary "Minnesota Nice" (27:42, SD) collates anecdotes about the film's inspiration and making. It's a highly entertaining half hour, featuring unusually peppy interviews with Joel & Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare.

The disc also includes a Photo Gallery, the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:58, HD), a "TV Spot" (:32, SD), and the American Cinematographer article "Cold-Blooded Scheming" by Chris Probst, which further focuses on Deakins' work on Fargo in collaboration with the Coens.

Sadly, Fox didn't pony up again for the Charlie Rose Show interview with the Coens and McDormand, which can be found on the Special Edition DVD but not on the Blu-ray.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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