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Murder, She Said

Fargo gives us comedy, killing -- and an eight-month pregnant detective

The career of Joel and Ethan Coen -- the writing/producing/directing pair of brothers (both write, Ethan produces, Joel directs, with some spillover everywhere) responsible for Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy -- has been littered with discussion of the recursive, postmodern metanature of their work. They've been prime fodder for the sort of people who like to grab a cup of decaf double espresso and jabber about films (never movies). Well, those who think intent is more crucial than content should retire to their favorite coffee shops. Because the Coens' latest, Fargo, is terrific not because it can provide them conversational topics for the next few months (though it could). It's terrific because it's witty and provocative and, most important, because it was made by and for smart, playful people. People who can laugh, and not necessarily bitterly, when things only end, instead of ending happily.

How stupid people can be is a main Coen theme, and one that Fargo hews to. In this gleeful black comedy, a mild-mannered car salesman causes all the trouble, and a woman eight months pregnant is the stoic heroine. The filmmakers are after con artists, thugs, rich bastards, typical audience expectations and Quentin Tarantino -- having the most fun with our expectations and Quentin Tarantino.

Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is a small-town police chief, whom the Coens slyly introduce as she sleeps. She's no delicate girl on silken sheets; snuggled under quilts, she sleeps as soundly as a bear in a cave. We know that if she's roused, there'll be trouble. We also know that once she's wakened, she won't rest until things are put right.

But she is roused, by a phone call that tells her that there's trouble. In a jiff, she's stuffed herself into her uniform and driven out to a crime scene, where, in the pale light of dawn, she finds there's been a triple homicide. Carefully, Gunderson examines all three bodies and reconstructs the crime. In her first few lively moments, we learn that Gunderson, grinning and nodding pleasantly all the while, is the soul of justice. She's shrewd and observant when ferreting out the facts of a crime, and thoughtful and compassionate when dealing with people. She's corny, but she has no illusions and, Wal-mart decor and all, she is not a joke.

The joke is Fargo's bad guys -- who are nonetheless lethal. In fact, one of the bad guys is played by Steve Buscemi, and any time Buscemi is cast, the filmmakers are making a little joke right there.

In this case, the joke works. He's paired with Peter Stormare, a hulking peroxide blond. This criminal pair spends a lot of time driving, and during their drive-time, Quentin Tarantino gets his. Instead of spewing the running pop-culture commentary of Tarantino thugs, these petty criminals enact an old gag. The big guy, Stormare, won't talk, and so from the funny-looking little fellow, Buscemi, we get the "if you won't talk to me, then I won't talk to you ... no siree, I won't say a word ... not one word ..." gag. The Coens milk this bit shamelessly, and the final result is funnier than anything that's ever passed between Taran-tino thugs.

This sprightly spoofing of our expectations and other movies is gravy, though; the meat of Fargo is the true nature of crime. And according to the Coens, the true nature of crime is that one bad idea and some poor planning can lead to a bloodbath. That's just how these things happen.

The two hapless criminals have been hired by a car salesman to kidnap his wife; he's in financial trouble, she has a rich father and he thinks that some ransom from his in-law could solve all his problems. He'll get his money, his wife will be returned and everybody will be happy. The salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), offers the kidnappers-for-hire a car off his lot, and a share of the ransom when paid, to do the deed. These three goons meet up in a seedy bar because, well, goons like them are destined to meet up in seedy bars and hatch half-wit plots. Their antics are fun to watch, at least until everything starts to go wrong and some poor schlub ends up with his brains splattered on the walls of a toll booth.

The banter and the ludicrous plot twists are on the fantastic side, but the gore is realistic. That's how the Coens get you: the lunacy draws you in, you're caught up in the momentum, engaged and laughing, and then they pounce. Suddenly, you're brought up sharply and remember that something is really at stake.

In Fargo, what's at stake are crime and justice. This is pointed out in what are set up as silly moments in which the contrast between a scene's mechanics and its content is the product of nothing less than genius. Late in the game, when things have gone about as far wrong as they can, pathetic Jerry Lundegaard is parked, at bay as it were, in a silent, snowy field -- literally and figuratively, he is alone. He sits in his car, thinking no helpful thoughts, and finally gives up. Before driving back to town, he takes an ice scraper to his windshield. He's a short, stocky-going-to-fat man in a cheap Gore-Tex parka using a fragile plastic tool on his drab sedan, and his jabbing at the ice quickly becomes hysterical. In a rage of frustration and self-pity, stamping and screaming like Yosemite Sam, the car salesman has a fit in the middle of nowhere. The action is frantic, but the moment is both grim and sobering.

On the flip side, we have Marge Gunderson. Lundegaard's plans may be going nowhere, but the pregnant chief chugs right along. Maybe she looks silly eating a tray full of cafeteria food and enjoying the cafeteria Muzak, but facts are what we need to follow. And the facts show that she's always on the case, even if she does look like a goober.

The telling and crucial aspects are dressed up with idiosyncratic Coen touches. Fargo doesn't take place in Fargo, or even North Dakota. Instead, it's set in Brainerd, Minnesota, deep in Paul Bunyan land, and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Fargo is just a cool name. And 1987, the stated year, is just a convenient year -- comfortably distant, and yet still familiar. The opening credits state that Fargo is a fact-based story, and that "out of respect for the dead E events are depicted as they happened," but that's all Coen brothers hooey. Those who look can find such fun all the way through. The closing credits, for instance, identify a "victim in field" with the symbol for the artist formerly known as Prince (altered with a smiley face mouth and eyes). The Coen brothers' gift for light comedy complements and enhances this complex and satisfying movie.

In this con-artist police procedural with funny sets and funnier situations, the Coens constantly contrast their story's realistic and cartoonish aspects -- and it's the cartoonish that turns out to be the nature of evil. Like the action in cartoons, the evil in Fargo is the product of poor planning, fast action and ego. The bad guys are as ludicrous as a sputtering Daffy Duck. This is an unconventional idea, because in most movies, people who kill people are shrewd and organized, or else lucky wildmen. The murders in Fargo are committed by funny, boozy losers. Yet the dead people are just as dead as anybody on the TV news. The Coens are about the only team going that can make that notion work, and in Fargo, they make it work to perfection.

Fargo.
Directed by Joel Coen. With Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy. Rated R. 98 minutes.

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