Fargo (Special Edition) Review
Joel and Ethan Coen have always deliberately steered away from the studio mainstream avenues of Hollywood, but their mid-nineties' effort, the Oscar winning Fargo, brought them closest to blockbuster status amongst audiences. Fargo itself is anything but a formulaic Hollywood movie, choosing instead to be a delicate blend of black humour and social commentary that possesses fully-realised characters and situations.
The film opens with a message informing the audience that it is in fact based on a true story. This is a lie. The Coens were well aware that an audience will invest more faith into a movie if the actions they witness on screen are based on real life events. If Fargo is based on anything, it's based on nothing more than the twisted, brilliant imaginations of the Coens themselves. The plot focuses on poor Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a Minnesota car salesman desperate for funds so that he can reap the benefits of investing into parking lots. Jerry is already fighting off a loan fraud investigation, and hatches a plan to screw the money out of his tight but very successful father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). The plan involves having Jerry's own wife kidnapped, with Wade being forced to pay a hefty ransom for her safe return, which Jerry and the kidnappers split between them. Jerry hires two shady down-and-outs Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), and soon events spiral out of control in true Coen Brothers fashion. Enter Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), pregnant police chief hired to investigate...
The film is named after an icy town in the Midwest, and Fargo strikes a frozen chill down the spine in nearly every sequence, be it from the snow-laden surroundings or the actions of its characters. Fortunately, the film is redeemed with some warmth, thanks to the central character of Marge Gunderson, played with natural down-to-earth charm by Frances McDormand, which would see her rewarded with an Oscar for Best Actress. It's very hard to sympathise with nearly all of Fargo's main figures, and the device of having Marge introduced after over half an hour of the film's running time suggests a new found maturity that the Coens had been working towards with their earlier work. Far from sitting back and laughing at their despicable creations, the Coens introduce a character that is worthy of the audience's love.
Still, it's hard not to find some sympathy for poor Jerry Lundegaard, brilliant portrayed by the weedy William H. Macy, even if his desperate persona has found justification to sacrifice all of his loved ones in pursuit of personal gain. We never hate Jerry; we empathise when he has to deal with his mean father-in-law Wade or his annoying wife Jean, and we even side with him when he screws extra dollars out of his customers when selling a car. Jerry is the main protagonist in Fargo until he is abruptly displaced by Marge, and when this transition occurs we lose a heavy amount of our care for him.
Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare make an unlikely comic duo as the two 'proper' bad guys of the film Carl and Gaear, and it's not surprising that the two actors have featured in other Coen Brothers movies. You could even argue that Buscemi's character Carl is the easiest for the audience to identify with, since his origins do not appear to be rooted in the Midwest and that his wit suggests intelligence not usually associated with a common criminal. Even so, Carl's inner-control degenerates as the movie progresses, leaving him open for every type of torment possible at the Coens' hands.
What makes the Coens so popular is their love for packing irrelevant details into their movies and somehow making them relevant. Their screenplay is the product of an assured collaboration that brims with controlled confidence. It's scary to imagine what Fargo would resemble had major studios intervened in its filmmaking process, and you have to admire the Coens for frequently refusing the green hand of dollar bills in order to maintain their own artistic control over their products. Their frequent cinematographer Roger Deakins manages to breathe life into the blank void of the icy Minnesota terrain, rendering the surroundings an epic canvas to allow the Coens to paint their diabolical tale. Deakins photography is matched perfectly to Carter Burwell's score, whose chilled string accompaniments suggest darker proceedings often lurk around the corner.
Although the later efforts of the Coens better Fargo, it's correct that this film be the one that garnered them Oscar success and brought them closest to mainstream success. Fargo is a brilliant and often ironic tale of desperation and greed, told without the usual Hollywood clichés. Featuring brilliant performances and production values, it ranks as one of the best films of the nineties.
Presented in matted 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality is generally very good, with decent sharp detail and a fine palette of colours (even if the colours used are often very limited). A few print defects are noticed that are nothing to worry about, and a relative lack of digital detriment can be found. It's worth noting that some of the on-screen subtitle messages are player-generated instead of burnt-on.
Presented in a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 that has been ported from the MGM region 1 barebones release, this is essentially a crisp and clear 2.0 mix with a few subtle surround events thrown into the rear mix. The music is given space to breathe across the channels, and most of the dialogue has a strong presence within the central well.
An interesting and sparse menu system playing on the film's snow-ridden themes, with a few sound effects thrown in.
Audio Commentary With Roger Deakins
Although it's pleasing to have any commentary on a Coen Brothers DVD, it's annoying that the pair themselves are absent on this track, particularly as their contribution formed an excellent commentary with Billy Bob Thornton on their later The Man Who Wasn't There DVD. As Deakins was the film's cinematographer, it's obvious that his comments will mostly deal with shooting the film and on-set details. It's a very dry commentary that could do with some accompaniment from another participator, and there are many pauses.
"Minnesota Nice" Documentary (27 Mins)
This is a decent documentary mixing contemporary interview footage with film clips and also retrospective interviews. All of the major participants are interviewed, and many funny items are discussed, such as the Coens' lie concerning the film's origins, which lead apparently to the death of an Asian woman who came to Minnesota looking for the lost ransom.
Interview With The Coen Brothers (20 Mins)
This is actually a segment of the famous "Charlie Rose Show" that has featured on many DVDs, including Cast Away and Rushmore. The Coens along with Frances McDormand are interviewed by Rose to promote Fargo and the material discussed is often interested even if Rose's delivery is painful at times.
This new trend of trivia tracks accompanying films is a nice innovation, and certainly benefits dry commentaries such as Roger Deakins' contribution. The trivia ranges from film anecdotes to actual factual information concerning anything from McDonald's to the history of Fargo. The text is featured on nicely coloured backgrounds that move to suit the on-screen proceedings.
The Coen Brothers Family Tree
This is an interesting textual based extra linking the actors who have appeared in the Coen Brothers films to a family tree. The text is housed on a background resembling a real patchwork family tree, and is nicely designed.
Trailers & TV Spots
Two trailers and one TV spot are featured, and all play on the film's ransom/murder and black comedy themes.
American Cinematographer Article
This is an interesting textual interview with Roger Deakins for American Cinematographer magazine that focuses on his photography methods for the film as well the techniques of the Coens themselves.
Behind-The-Scenes Photo Gallery
A collection of on-set photograph stills accessible via user navigation.
An excellent blend of darkest drama and black comedy is given a decent Special Edition overhaul by MGM that still lacks a Coen Brothers commentary but does contain some decent, informative extras suggesting that an upgrade might be a viable option.