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.