Fargo Review

The Film

Making the cool and the quirky popular isn't always easy. What makes a film-maker's work distinctive and worth following can often be the very barriers that bar its popular acceptance. Think of the early barking and often gross films of Almodovar, which have now given way to a much more sophisticated director whose content has also been toned down to better reach the populace.

Before Fargo, the Coen brothers were cult outsiders who dallied with the mainstream. This film's success led to their helming much more obvious industry fare like Intolerable Cruelty and the Ladykillers, generic projects that they gave, to paraphrase their own Barton Fink, that Coen Brothers' feeling. I thought that this year's Burn After Reading represented another attempt at a picture with a similar mainstream appeal after their edgier but still popular No Country For Old Men.

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Fargo is a movie that still challenges any attempt at easy classification, and it is most definitely an evocation of the brother's own roots in Minnesota. It's a daring film that if you get it gives you plenty on the inside in terms of irony, sick humour and a real warmth for its characters. To get it isn't so hard but it's interesting that some effort is required by the viewer and the writing directing team don't try too hard to reach out to the masses. This means that those who followed their early films get a movie they enjoy too, and that the film repays revisiting much more successfully than a lot of their later more generic films.

The set-up of the story is part Greek tragedy part film noir, and the delivery is aided by an impeccable sense of dialogue and brilliant performances from a wonderful cast. William H Macy is the useless son-in-law who hires weasly Steve Buscemi and marlboro man Peter Stormare to kidnap his own wife. Things start to go wrong and the plot leaves a trail of bodies in its wake for pregnant police chief Frances McDormand to investigate and decipher as the film's moral centre.

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On one level Fargo is a black comedy, and on another a morality tale where the greedy and the stupid cause mayhem and the goodly settled Marge Gunderson ensures they get their comeuppance. For all the poking of fun at the strange idioms of small towns and their parochial foibles the small town people are celebrated, and it is in fact their decency that defeats the townies. This quality is unexpected when most culture clash movies make hay with the opposite effect as the cultivated city folk are seen as superior to the local yokels.

Carter Burwell's music gives the film its gentle momentum, and Roger Deakins captures the freezing cold and endless snow of the locations. Fargo is a nigh perfectly realised project where quality of craft and the originality of the concept deliver an intriguing movie that is sad, funny, moving and sometimes brutal. Describing what it is, or why it is, rather destroys the film's achievements and that is frequently the hallmark of innovative and compelling cinema.

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As an example of outsiders winning over the greater public Fargo is exceptional, and the same formula of great charm and perfect craft would be notable in their next film The Big Liebowski as well. From this point on, I rather think the brothers were less successful in retaining both popular appeal and creative integrity, Fargo though certainly has endured on both these scores.

Transfer and Sound

Well there is plenty of film grain here, something that shows up particularly in the snowbound sequences of the opening credits and the aftermath of the first killings. It's pretty heavy, and you can also see obvious haloing around objects and characters if you click on any of the lighter images here and see the 1080 captures. I don't see any obvious use of DNR to lessen the grain but this is an image than many will not be happy with despite decent contrast and good colour balance as extra detail isn't that obvious. The transfer takes up 29.6 GB of the disc.

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Two English options are offered here, the original standard def stereo surround and a master audio track mixed in 5.1. As both Raphael and Rik mentioned in their standard definition reviews, the 5.1 mix offers very little in the way of extra treats in the directionality of effects or dialogue, and you may be hard pressed to notice too much difference between it and the stereo surround option in terms of coverage. The real difference is the obvious one of lossless versus lossy sound on this disc, and it's hard to appreciate why the lossless option wasn't offered in the same format as how the film was originally recorded. The added richness of the soundtrack music along with the extra dimension given to the accents are welcome though with this master audio option.

Discs and Special Features

The disc used up about 65% of its 50GB capacity and the extras are ones familiar to purchasers of previous DVD releases. There is the enjoyable half hour documentary Minnesota Nice included with the main cast, the brothers and Roger Deakins all remembering the project. The footage of Buscemi seems to have been shot during the actual shoot of the film. Joel explains that the interest for the Coens of the story was that "polite cultures are the most repressed and therefore the most violent". William H Macy talks about auditioning three times for the part that he was born to play and his outrage at the opening titles' claim that the film was a true story. It's a witty and enjoyable documentary that's a worthwhile feature.

An article from American Cinematographer looks into how Deakins shot the film with contributions from Joel and Ethan, and Deakins also provides a DP's commentary that accompanies the film. His words are understandably focused on the photography and he outlines how he intended to achieve a restrained and observational impact with the images. He is quite dry, straightforward and good at self-criticism. For those who want this level of insight into the film's look this will easily hit the spot.

There is a trivia track that you can turn on to display facts and titbits as you watch the film, but I am not sure that this is either interesting or appropriate when enjoying the experience of this main feature. The included photo gallery has over eighty images from the film's shooting, there is a high def trailer and a TV spot.


It's a relatively restrained package with an ok transfer. It's good to have it out there but perhaps restored or remastered materials may provide a better image in future releases.

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Category Blu-Ray Review

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