Thursday, March 19, 2015

1996 - Fargo

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a pub trivia night here in Los Angeles. Pub trivia is a staple of weeknight life in Australia and, in fact, I was even a pub trivia host for quite some time back home, but a mixture of a scarcity of time and a scarcity of venues hosting such events has meant I haven't been to one in rather a long time. I'd like to think my movie knowledge helped our team to second place, although I let my teammates down when I represented them in the speed round and failed under pressure to name a movie beginning with the letter N. The shame.

Now, let's take a look at another Best Picture contender from 1996...

Joel Coen
Ethan & Joel Coen
Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, John Carroll Lynch
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, including Best Actress (McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay

Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) hatches a plan to end his financial woes by having his wife kidnapped and pocketing the ransom money that his father-in-law, Wade (Presnell), will be forced to fork out. Jerry hires unlikely criminal duo Carl and Gaear (Buscemi and Stormare) to carry out the deed but things go awry when Gaear goes rogue and shoots a state trooper and two passersby on a barren country road outside of Brainerd, Minnesota. While Jerry and the kidnappers bicker over how to sort out the mess, Brainerd's police chief, Marge Gunderson (McDormand), takes charge of the investigation into the multiple homicides and her congenial persistence soon gives Jerry cause for major concern.

Fargo opens with a caption informing us that, while the names have been changed, everything that is about to occur actually happened. I don't know whether it was because of the film's current well-known status in pop culture or because of the Coen brothers' reputation for offbeat stories or maybe it was just because I'd seen it before, but I didn't trust that caption for a second. A true story? Really? Turns out my disbelief is only partially justified. The Coens did indeed grab their inspiration from a real-life wood chipper incident and used an amalgam of other criminal events, but the specifics of the plot and the idiosyncrasies of character are entirely fictional.

Reportedly, they inserted the opening caption in order to manipulate the audience into accepting the somewhat far-fetched elements of the story. For me, however, I'll willingly accept any plot detail, whether it's appropriated from reality or not, as long as it's within the film's verisimilitude. And Fargo's verisimilitude is never broken. Yes, these events are implausible and occasionally coincidental, but all are set up convincingly and are always engaging. In fact, the plot is excitingly intricate with many captivating and unpredictable twists and turns that I simply didn't even care about the authenticity of it all. It's just brilliant story-telling, plain and simple, irrespective of whether it really happened or not.

The film's style is unmistakably Coen brothers, a curious blend of whimsy and intrigue, culminating in that tense climactic (and now iconic) wood chipper scene. And in keeping with that kooky style, Fargo features a barrage of mildly vexing regional accents, most of them coupled with Minnesota nice, a sort of perpetual politeness that lends a pleasing air of incongruity to an otherwise seedy crime story. The experience is enhanced further by some decidedly beautiful cinematography by frequent Coen-collaborator Roger Deakins, who makes the snowy Minnesotan landscapes seem like another character all its own. The Academy shortlisted him for his work on this film, but sadly he has never won a golden statue, despite a total of 10 nominations over the years, five of them for Coen brothers films.

A magnificent cast is yet another element contributing to Fargo's quirky atmosphere. Steve Buscemi is perfectly cast as Carl, the inept yet indignant criminal who is regularly described as generally odd-looking.
Earning an Oscar for Best Actress, Frances McDormand delivers an appealing portrayal of a small-town police chief. Marge may seem simple and straightforward on the surface, but McDormand augments that unassuming nature with a deep sense of urgency and determination when required. My favourite, though, is William H. Macy (pictured) as the desperate and misguided car salesman turned wannabe mastermind criminal. Macy inhabits Jerry's nervous disposition to naturalistic perfection. His sketchy smiles attempt to cover up his internal struggle, but the cracks are showing and it is delightful to watch.

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