Film Scouts Reviews


by Karen Jaehne

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The Coen Brothers are the masters of American Expressionism. They have managed to overstate just about everything in our landscape. Now, they come to overstate the understatement of a part of America known primarily for its emptiness. The snows that blanket all detail are an unlikely subject for Hollywood, so let's just admit this was made for the Cannes Film Festival.

The last time someone assayed snow in this way was in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," Robert Altman's look at a snow-bound frontier through the opium-tinted glasses of a brothel owner. Here, we look at middle-class America in the suspended animation of freezing temperatures. The plot is launched by a salesman of new and used cars; he has a wheedling voice and a sleeve full of tricks to shove his deals through. But one deal gets out of control: he arranges to have his wife kidnapped. She's the character who grates on our nerves and, since she's a textbook victim, we start suspecting the Coens are up to no good; poor lady gets grabbed right in the middle of her favorite soaps in a terrifying scene. Homage is paid to Kubrick's "The Shining" when Buscemi comes through the bathroom door after her, but the episode has less to do with film history than the fragility of human love.

The anti-dramatic white-on-white study in "Fargo" is the Coen Brothers' move to subtlety, a characteristic never before associated with them. The road is flat, the horizon is flat, the accents are flat, the cops are flat-footed. Just as we are beginning to equate flat with flatulence, the movie makes a sharp turn and shows how sadly human, how prosaic, lackluster, inert, uniform and colorless real life is - out there on the porch steps of the hall of fame. The lot of the common man is to be satisfied with small victories - catching a murderer, designing a stamp. Maybe the urban wanna-be can learn something here.

Europeans love the American hinterland. What is it about small-towns in the USA that end up in violence with fat cops hanging toothpicks from their mouths while spouting homilies? The Coen Brothers are the product of that world and spent several movies defying its flatness. Their female characters have always been angular, their criminals philosophize, their poets are manic-depressive. As a result, when they move into the home of Paul Bunyan, we expect them to focus on Bunyan's ax, not his strength.

Yet "Fargo" is about the strength of insignificant, round people routinely solving problems that we, in our arrogance, deem too complex for them. After witnessing this mid-western "it ain't rocket science" approach to life, we tend to rethink all the drama involved in the average police thriller or murder mystery. Francis McDormand gets to the bottom of it all without hype. Serial killers are on the loose, a guy gets shoved through a wood-chip chopper, for pete's sake! But she never misses a meal, and gets to the bottom of it by following the manual, the instructional prose of which is audible in the way she describes what she sees whenever she ambles onto a crime scene.

McDormand is not simply fantastic; she's fantastically simple. Seldom will an actress allow herself so little affect, such minimal presence. She could well come away from Cannes with an acting trophy, because her sense of realism has not been seen since Betsy Blair played Claire in "Marty." Even Buscemi has been toned down from his usual scenery-chomping, because the Coens do have a message here.

Contrary to critical reaction in New York, this movie is not an attempt to ridicule mid-western values. It is an elevation of the quiet way of life; it is an attempt to show self-important people that life is just as weird and unpredictable, just as satisfying in its small doses of celebrity in places like Fargo and Brainerd. Something about wastelands like Wisconsin deserves respect; they produce people like Joseph Losey and Georgia O'Keefe and brothers like the Coens. Maybe where the landscape offers nothing to see, you have to be a visionary.

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