Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
"You betcha!"
A region 2 DVD review of the special edition of FARGO by Slarek
 

For my money the Coen Brothers, from the moment they started making movies, have been two of the most consistently impressive and imaginative filmmakers working in American cinema. From their wonderfully dark, noir-ish debut Blood Simple, they have tackled a string of genres and every time have come up with something completely new. Raising Arizona was an extraordinary kinetic comedy of family, devotion and disaster, Miller's Crossing put a new slant on the gangster movie, The Hudsucker Proxy was a semi-surrealistic take on the cinema of Frank Capra, and Barton Fink was a nightmare spin on the rookie-comes-to-Hollywood tale. For some the road to Fargo has been an uneven one, but I would champion every one of the aforementioned as cinema of the highest order. Barton Fink I regard as a dyed-in-the-wool masterpiece, but like all their preceding films it reached an unfairly narrow audience. It was considered just too odd, too 'out there' for many, but I know I was not the only one who sat slack jawed with amazement as the film unfolded. I guess it was in part because of this history that I was both surprised and unsurprised by the widespread critical acclaim that greeted Fargo – unsurprised because this is what they've been doing all along, making astonishingly individual and imaginative films from super-smart scripts around compellingly offbeat characters, but surprised because it seemed to have taken some observers so long to appreciate this. Unlike its predecessors, Fargo seemed to work for just about everybody, and the joy of the film is that this was not the result of any sort of compromise on the part of the filmmakers – Fargo is quintessential Coen Brothers: quirky, inventive, wonderfully performed, and genuinely unlike anything else around.

The set-up is seemingly straightforward but still pleasingly offbeat. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard has money problems, something he intends to put right by hiring two would-be kidnappers to abduct his wife and demand a ransom from her wealthy father Wade, the intention being to split the ransom money evenly with his criminal cohorts. Almost nothing goes to plan. The kidnappers have issues from the start both with Jerry and each other, and after a clumsy abduction, events take a very serious turn for the worse when a patrolman and two motorists are brutally slain (in a scene that directly references a key sequence in Blood Simple). Enter Marge Gunderson, Fargo's heavily pregnant female chief of police, who is charged with the job of putting the pieces together to solve this multiple homicide.

Fargo is on the surface a crime drama, but unlike any you've ever laid eyes on. Set in an area of Minnesota where the majority of residents are of Scandinavian descent, the accents make even the delivery of straightforward lines unique, and the relentless cheerful attitude of the locals gives most exchanges a peculiarly bizarre sense of optimism. As always with the Coens, character is key and here it brings a joy to almost every action and line of dialogue, effectively rendering even the seemingly familiar in a completely new light. We've watched police looking over the bodies of murder victims countless times before, but I can pretty much guarantee you've never seen the chief of police stop with seeming surprise in the middle of the examination, bend over as if she's discovered a vital new clue, then reveal that she's suffering from morning sickness.

This is a film about greed, loneliness, stupidity and self-interest. Jerry is married with a young son and not only feels unable to share his rapidly deteriorating financial problems with his wife, but is willing to put her through the trauma of a kidnapping to correct the situation. Would-be kidnappers Carl and Gaear, meanwhile, are so pettily self-motivated that they eventually come to blows not over the substantial ransom, but over who will take the car that was thrown in with the deal. Marge's former school friend Mike Yanagita's desperation for companionship prompts him to make a complete spectacle of himself in front of her, and even Marge's husband Norm is so caught up in a stamp painting competition that he never once asks Marge – a pregnant woman investigating a multiple shooting – how her day has gone. But in other ways Marge and Norm are the stability at the centre of spiraling chaos – their love for each other is genuine and the two appear most content with their lives as they are, the flipside of Jerry's marital discontent. And it's perhaps typical of a film that bristles with the unusual that we are a good third of the way into the story before Marge, who in many ways could regarded as the central character, makes her first appearance.

Part of Fargo's delight comes from it's near perfect melding of character and narrative – neither is made to suffer at the expense of the other, and in the tradition of great storytelling the narrative is propelled forward at every turn by the protagonists. At the core is a superb screenplay that lays out the story and dialogue in more precise detail than you might imagine, right down to Jerry's seemingly improvised umms and ahhs when discussing the plan with the would-be kidnappers. There is a stylised yet somehow 'real' quality to the dialogue and its delivery, most apparent in the work of the smaller roles: the two girls interviewed about having sex with the kidnappers; the upset customer who struggles with his own natural politeness to angrily call Jerry "a f...f...fucking liar!"; the old man who interrupts clearing snow from his drive to deliver a hilariously deadpan witness statement to the visiting trooper... there isn't a single character, no matter how brief their appearance, who doesn't leave an impression in some way.

Of course, much of this is down to some savvy casting and a string of uniformly excellent performances. Francis McDormand won an Oscar for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson and just this once it was richly deserved – this is a terrific part, wonderfully written, but McDormand brings so much to it, making every line and gesture register, from the everyday – her joyful "Hiya hon!" on finding Norm waiting for her at the police station – to the memorably offbeat: "Was he funny looking apart from that?" she smilingly asks a girl of a male suspect after being told that he wasn't circumcised. William H. Macy is at the top of his considerable form as the hapless Jerry Lundegaard, wonderfully communicating his doom-laden, nervous uncertainty about just about everything through facial expression and body language. He repeatedly shines in the smallest of moments, a favourite being his frustrated attempts to clean ice of his windscreen that degenerates into a furious flailing of arms, only for him to eventually return, resigned, to his original task. Steve Buscemi finally moves up from Coen bit part player to major role as the wonderfully sleazy would-be kidnapper Carl, unlikable to the point of infuriating at times and yet somehow still a compelling screen character. His endless, often directionless chatter is counterbalanced nicely by Peter Stormare's surly silence as Gaear, whose true colours remain hidden until their unfortunate roadside encounter with the doomed patrolman.

Whether or not this is the Coen Brothers' best film yet remains a matter of opinion, though it remains their most critically acclaimed and the perfect introduction to their body of work. As a drama it is compelling and multi-layered, as a character study it is a constant delight – it's funny, scary, violent, tender and richly imaginative throughout.

sound and vision

Fargo was previously released on region 2 DVD by Polygram and there have been a few reviews of this new MGM special edition that have complained about the poor quality of the transfer on the earlier disk. Frankly, this is nonsense, though I have no doubt some reviews are just repeating what they have read elsewhere rather than actually comparing the disks side-by side. The image on the original Polygram release is for the most part sharp and clear with good colour rendition, though the bitrate is a little low and this does result in some visible artefacting in places. Some scenes do seem to lack a certain punch and the sharpness is not as consistent as it should be, but it's still a generally pleasing transfer. Compare the screen grabs below – the top ones are from the Polygram original, the bottom from the MGM special edition reviewed here.

At this size the Polygram version actually looks superior, but blown up on a large widescreen TV the MGM special edition most definitely has the edge in almost every respect, but not to the degree that has been claimed elsewhere. The picture on the MGM disk is consistently sharp, with no artefacting and solid colours and blacks. It is not as bright as the Polygram disk, but the transfer on the MGM disk just feels more 'right'. In short it looks great. Just one thing, the picture on the MGM disk appears to be very slightly cropped down on all sides compared to the image on the Polygram disk (again, check the grabs above) – which is correct is hard to say, but TV overscan tends to render them almost identical, although the minor windowboxing of the MGM transfer may well balance this out.

Where the two disks do differ substantially is on sound. The Polygram release had a rather flat Dolby 2.0 track, while the MGM has a 5.1 remix. This is not a particularly full mix, but has a far greater range than on the earlier release and really comes into its own when the lower frequencies are engaged.

extra features

The original Polygram release was almost devoid of extras, but that in itself was not such a surprise – such was the fate of most Coen Brothers releases. Here the MGM disk is clearly superior, boasting a small but on the whole useful set of extras.

With The Man Who Wasn't There the only disc to date to feature a straight-up commentary track from teh Coens (I'm not counting the parodic one on the region 1 Blood Simple), such a contribution here from the boys would have been welcome, but it was not to be. Instead we have a commentary from Roger Deakins, the Coen's regular director of photography after Barry Sonnenfeld moved on to directing. I was looking forward to this, having bought the disc shortly before I was about to shoot my first digital feature as DoP, and I was hoping to get a few tips from one of the masters. Initially I was a little disappointed on all fronts – Deakins wasn't chatty enough and, worst of all, wasn't talking about lighting and camerawork. Others may be relieved at this, of course. Though the lapses do continue throughout, and some of Deakins' comments are clearly the result of unheard questioning, a great deal of good stuff does emerge, and later on even some info on lighting for us camera types. The problems of working in sub-zero temperatures, having to fake snow with an ice-chipper, the decision to tone down the previously kinetic camera style to take a more observational approach, the importance of pre-production planning and more are all covered in reasonable and interesting detail. On the whole, this is a pretty good track.

The documentary, Minnesota Nice, is presented 4:3 and runs for 27 minutes. It looks not just at the genesis and production of the film, but the background to the setting and characterisation, which clarifies the source of the accents that pepper the film and paints a very upbeat picture of a unique-sounding corner of America, one that actually sounds worth hunting out. Featuring interviews with all of the key participants, including the directors and lead actors, this is a fascinating and entertaining extra and will do nicely in lieu of a Coen commentary. It also discusses the film's most controversial aspect, the claim that it was based on a true story – it wasn't, and appears more the result of a cornucopia of stories that have been passed on to the Brothers, which they then fashioned into a single narrative.

The Trivia Track, when activated, is a graphical version of Cliff from Cheers, throwing little known facts at us with impressive regularity, some directly related to the film, such as background information on actors, many sparked by words spoken in the dialogue or places in which a scene is set or filmed. This is a consistently interesting track with some unexpected inclusions – the fat and calorie content of a McDonald's Vanilla shake, or some useful advice on what to do if you or someone you know is kidnapped – even if a small number of the submissions feel a bit like space filling, such as dictionary definitions of 'Ransom', 'Kidnapping' and 'Disparity'. It's still a fun and informative extra, and once started it's difficult to just leave this track and come back later – you tend to want to stay with it.

An Interview with the Coen Brothers and Frances McDormand, recorded for the Charlie Rose Show in the US, runs for 20 mins and is a busy extra – the Brothers and McDormand are very talkative and forthcoming, and are generally well fed by Rose, though he does trip up once, asking McDormand if she was a fan of the Coens' work before she married one of them, only to have her point out that since they met on their and her first film, they didn't have a body of work at that time. It's always great to see the Coens interviewed – it's a rare enough thing – and this is a useful extra.

My yearning for information on the lighting and camerawork in the film was pretty much satiated by the text-based article reproduced from the American Cinematographer magazine, probably the essential trade journal for working and budding cinematographers. This is a long article that goes into considerable detail on the lighting and camerawork on the film, with contributions from Deakins and the Coens. All the talk of camera, stock and lens choices may be lost on those not in the know (and there is a fair amount of film-making jargon here, with no explanatory glossary for the uninitiated – see right hand panel beneath the disc specs for some help), but for film-makers and those interested in the technical aspects of the process, this is a very useful addition. There are also some on-set photos and some of Deakins' own lighting plans included.

The behind-the-scenes photos are interesting, just to see the cast and crew in a more relaxed mode, but the section continues the infuriating DVD habit of presenting such pictures in a small frame in the middle of the screen, here surrounded by a snowy border, which though in-keeping with the presentation of the disc, wastes a huge amount of screen space that could have been more usefully employed on the photos themselves. There are quite a lot of pictures, though, and you can advance manually or let them tick through on automatic.

The Coen Brothers' Family tree is just that – a tree, bearing the names of key actors they have worked with. You can select any of the names and get a listing of the films they have done for the Coens, and from there can select the principal cast list from individual films. This is fine, but a little more detail would have been nice. Listing Sam Raimi, an old friend and co-script collaborator of the Coen Bothers, just as a bit part player in two of their films seems to be missing the most interesting information.

Finally there are 2 Trailers and a TV spot. Trailer 1 runs for 2 minutes, has an anamorphic 1.85:1 picture and is frankly a peculiar beast, with largely upbeat music not heard in the film and an almost Disney-esque voice-over, it really gives very little idea of the film's tone. Trailer 2 is a similar length and identical aspect ratio and this time has a cocktail lounge piano track and no voice-over, but at least the chosen extracts give a better feel for the film's eccentric edge, and we do get a snatch of the main theme mid way. This same tinkly background music sits behind the 4:3 TV spot, which at just 30 seconds does a better job of getting you interested by showing you less, but the clips are well selected. All three trailers are in reasonably good shape.

summary

Fargo remains probably the Coen Brothers' most acclaimed movie, and certainly it is up there with their best. On my own I tend to run The Big Lebowski more often, and if I have friends visiting I plump for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but that shouldn't detract in any way from what I still regard as a genuinely great American movie. This is a fine disk, with the sort of picture and sound quality the film deserves, plus enough decent extras to fully justify that Special Edition status. Highly recommended.

Fargo

USA 1996
94 mins
director
Joel Coen
starring
Frances McDormand
William H. Macy
Steve Buscemi
Herve Presnell
Peter Storemare

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Digital 5.1
languages
English
French
Spanish
subtitles
English
French
Spanish
Dutch
Portuguese
Polish
Croatian
Greek
Czech
Hungarian
extras

Commentary by DoP Roger Deakins

Interview with the Coen Brothers and Frances McDomand
Coen Brothers family tree
American Cinematographer article
Trivia track
Photo gallery
Trailers
distributor
Granada
review posted
22 December 2003

Lighting and camera glossary
A brief explanation of some of the terms used in the American Cinematographer article included on the disk.
CTO – Colour Temperature Orange, a filter used primarily to correct daylight, which has a blue bias, to match artificially generated light, which has an orange bias.
CTS – Colour Temperature Straw, similar to CTO but with less red.
HMI – an artificial light that is balanced for daylight.
Practicals – light fixtures seen in shot as part of the setting that supply lighting to the scene (such as table lamps).
Gaffer – chief lighting technician.
Gag lights – small off-camera lights used to boost or fill-in practicals.
Prime lens – a fixed focal length lens, as opposed to a zoom lens, which has a variable focal length. Prime lenses are generally regarded as having superior opticals to zoom lenses.

See all of Slarek's reviews