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Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, Peter Stormare, Kristin Rudrud, Dave Presnell
Writing Credits:
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere.

Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and winner of two (Actress and Original Screenplay), this "darkly amusing" (Los Angeles Times) thriller combines a "first-rate cast" (Variety), "a dazzling mix of mirth and malice" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone) and an unusual kidnapping plot that unravels the Midwest like never before.

Jerry (William H. Macy), a small Minnesota town car salesman, is bursting at the seams with debt … but he's got a plan. He's gonna hire two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife in a scheme to collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. It's gonna be a snap and nobody's gonna get hurt … until people start dying. Enter Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a coffee-drinking, parka-wearing - and extremely pregnant - investigator who'll stop at nothing to get her man. And if you think her small-time investigative skills will give the crooks a run for their ransom … you betcha!

Box Office:
Budget $7 million.
Domestic Gross
$25.882 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 98 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 8/15/2000

• Theatrical Trailer
• Booklet

Search Titles:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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Fargo (1996)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 16, 2003)

Although I don't tend to like movies made by siblings, I must admit that I found Fargo by Joel (writer/director) and Ethan (writer/producer) Coen to offer a fairly compelling film. That's not always been the case, however, as I once regarded Fargo as a minor victim of high expectations.

I didn't see the film until it'd bopped around theaters for a while and finally hit the bargain circuit. By that point, I'd heard a great deal of praise for it, and since it seemed to be my kind of movie, I expected it to offer a fantastically fascinating experience.

That didn't happen. As I recall, I thought Fargo was interesting and mildly entertaining but it seemed radically overrated. Actually, I still think the film's reputation exceeds its worth - no way this sucker should be on the AFI 100 list - but I like it a bit more than I did when I originally saw it in the mid-Nineties.

Clearly general audiences will never embrace Fargo, as it's simply too odd. On the surface, it's a fairly straightforward "cops and robbers" kind of picture; heavily in debt, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) convinces some low-lifes to kidnap his wife. Her father will pay the ransom and they'll split the money. Simple, right? Of course, complications ensue and the body count escalates. Eventually heavily pregnant small town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) becomes involved in the case.

It's in the execution of the tale that Fargo differs from other, similar stories. From the comically-overemphasized Minnesota accents heard from most of the main characters to the haplessness of so many of the participants to the extreme oddity of a nearly-due pregnant police chief, Fargo tosses a lot of strange stuff into the mix. Many times, films that work this way tend to be weird just for the sake of trying to be different; for example, I watched Drowning Mona tonight and found that the movie's humor didn't work because it was so self-consciously wacky.

The Coen brothers often run that same risk and have encountered those problems in some of their other pictures; I thought The Big Lebowski was a total disaster due to this high level of forced nuttiness. For the most part, the humor in Fargo succeeds and barely stays on the side of cleverness without too much obvious silliness.

Part of that stems from the fact the characters aren't as idiosyncratic as those in similar kinds of films. In fact, most of them - Jerry, Marge, and their friends and families - are about as nice and pleasant as one could hope. It's from that plainness that much of the humor stems; so much of the story is handled in a matter of fact manner that the contrast becomes entertaining. Even the kidnappers - wiry Carl (Steve Buscemi) and silent Gaear (Peter Stormare) - aren't particularly eccentric characters; though Carl's easily the most hyper of the bunch, considering the slow and laconic demeanors of so many of the others.

Fargo is a black comedy but remains hard to categorize in other ways. One mistake is to expect the film to offer a laugh riot, because most of the humor tends to be droll or wry and doesn't lend itself to hysterics. Most of the fun comes from the characterizations, actually, and they're uniformly strong. I don't think McDormand deserved an Oscar for her work as Marge simply because she seems too cartoony and broad a character, but I still liked her work; she makes the role such a strong presence in the film that it's funny to think she doesn't enter until more than a third of it has gone.

I always like Macy, and he gives Jerry his usually wonderful hangdog aura. Macy does tired defeat better than anyone in the business, and he makes Jerry much more sympathetic than he should have been; he seems like such a nice guy that even though he's committing a crime, I couldn't help but root for him. Buscemi and Stormare aren't sympathetic at all, but they have strong chemistry together and make an effective pair, especially since the two are completely opposite in almost every way; the contrasts add to the effect.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Fargo and think it has a lot to offer. I admit I still don't believe it deserves all of the fuss it's received over the years but feel it's one of the Coen brothers better films. It's an entertaining and clever piece that avoids the self-consciously wacky pitfalls that often mar this kind of project.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus D-

Fargo appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen side was rated for this review. Although the film shows some wear, for the most part the picture looks good.

I found the movie to appear nicely sharp and detailed, with solid definition at almost all times. Any instances of softness were minor, and most of the movie seemed crisp and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns. TV.

Not surprisingly, the palette used in Fargo appeared pretty subdued. It's a snow-dominated landscape, so whites and various earth tones filled most of the film. All of these seemed well-reproduced, and when we see brighter colors, they appear clear and accurate; for example, the nighttime scene in which red lighting from car tail-lights features prominently looked nicely clean and lacked any signs of noise or bleeding.

Since the movie was so starkly lit much of the time, black levels were more prominent than usual, and they looked solid and deep, with no murkiness or tentative qualities. Shadow detail appeared excellent; throughout the low-light scenes, I found the all of the image to be readily viewable with no problems related to excessively heavy or thick darkness.

The main concern I found with the image related to print flaws. Slight evidence of scratches, nicks, and grit appeared throughout the movie, and some light grain showed up at times as well. These issues stayed fairly minor, and I must note that Fargo offered more opportunities for defects to be noticeable than most movies; all of those snowscapes made the slightest problems visible. Nonetheless, the faults seemed significant enough to knock my grade down to a still-strong "B".

Fargo included a fairly effective Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. (The DVD’s case referred to this as a Dolby Surround track, but it indeed was a 5.1 affair.) Since this wasn't exactly a rootin'-tootin' action movie, the soundfield seemed fairly subdued. However, it provided a nicely involving atmosphere. The forward spectrum dominated and displayed some good stereo imaging. Each of the three speakers offered a lot of activity, and the material blended well between the channels to create a lively impression. The surrounds mainly stuck to reinforcement of the front speakers, but they made the mix more immersive, especially during segments like the wood-chipper scene. It's a modest soundfield but one that suited the film.

As for the quality of the audio, it's generally a well-recorded affair. Dialogue displayed slight edginess on a few occasions, but it mostly appeared natural and distinct, with no issues related to intelligibility. Effects were clear and realistic, while the score sounded smooth and bright. Overall, the track boasted solid dynamic range and could pack a decent punch when necessary. Ultimately, the mix worked very well for this movie and earned a “B”.

Less positive are the supplemental features included on the Fargo DVD. All we find are the film's original theatrical trailer plus a four-page booklet that offers some nice production notes. Yawn!

Despite the less-than-compelling extras, Fargo deserves a look. The film won't be everyone's cup of tea, as it's a rather unusual piece of work, but it accomplishes most of its goals and manages to keep from being overly showy or silly. The DVD provides good picture and sound though it lacks significant extras. Fargo at least merits a rental for those who haven't seen it, and the film's established fans should be pleased with this DVD.

To rate this film, visit the SPECIAL EDITION review of FARGO