Fargo (Special Edition) Review

Joel is the credited director as he bought their first camera, and Ethan is the credited producer because he didn't. When they write, Ethan types whilst Joel paces. When they edit, Joel splices the film whilst Ethan paces. Together, they form the Coen brothers – arguably the finest, and most unique, duo working in Hollywood today.

From their debut Blood Simple back in the '80s, they have gained a reputation as filmmakers who work slightly out of the mainstream, producing quirky and original films rather than the usual Hollywood fare. In 1996 they released a film entitled Fargo – a Midwestern yarn involving car salesman Jerry Lundegaard and his attempts to get out of debt. After coming up with the idea to have his wife, Jean, kidnapped by two inept thugs (Carl and Gaear), believing that the ransom that his father-in-law will pay out will end his woes and ensure his head stays firmly above water, regardless of any possible effect on his conscience.

Telling Carl and Gaear that they can help themselves to a 50/50 share of the $80,000 ransom, he neglects to mention that Jean’s father, Wade, will instead hand over $1 million…through Jerry, of course, for as he explains to his father-in-law the kidnappers will only communicate with him. So with the thought of $920,000 set firmly in his sights, things are finally looking up for Jerry - until things get decidedly out of hand. And now with a pregnant police chief, Marge, on the case, the icy Midwestern town is starting to heat up.

The town, the titular Fargo, is a place of over-politeness and snow. For every 'yah' you hear, there is an acre of barren snow land, and the lives of the characters in it are best described as mundane. Jerry, for example, is a car salesman – hardly a daredevil profession, yet it still allows the character room to be decidedly shifty; after all, his job is hardly one of integrity and honour. But the audience still has room to feel a little bit of sympathy, and empathy, for his situation. Stuck with a wife who shows her annoying tendencies once too often and the debt that he is in, perhaps his plan is one that others may deploy as a last resort…and it is safe to say that it really is a last resort of sorts for Jerry. And the performance by William H. Macy is wonderful: he plays him as a weedy, out of depth man; and not someone totally lacking humanity.

Instead, the main antagonists in Fargo are Carl and Gaear – brilliantly portrayed by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, respectively. They are obviously fellows who have rebelled against society, and become outcasts, resorting to crime as their only way of passing their days until death. It is also apparent that violence is built up inside of them, which explodes at times throughout the film: and makes Buscemi look a lot more malevolent than he otherwise would appear! The quietly-menacing Stormare is also perfectly suited to the role of Gaear.

The Coens have also wisely chosen not to write a purely dark film, but instead there are moments of light, and redemption of sorts. Marge Gunderson, the aforementioned police chief, is a warm and good-natured woman, and her pregnancy in the film symbolises that – she is going to give and create life, not destroy it like the other characters.

Fargo's screenplay resulted in an Oscar for the Coens, and it is easy to see why. Full of dialogue that is rounded and believable, and not just a string of words that don’t develop the characters, the final product executed on screen is a result of thorough planning on paper, as much as it is to their skill at visualising. Dark humour is woven into the narrative, and when combined with the strengths of the visuals – the snowy landscapes appear beautifully on film, credit for that must also go to cinematographer Roger Deakins (a Coen regular) – the film becomes something that is immensely watchable.

Although the film may be slightly over-hyped (and not actually based on a true story), there is no denying that this is something infinitely better than the standard dross that somehow escapes from film studios. Fargo actually has a point to it, and that is conveyed not by chance, but instead by possessing a strong screenplay and commendable final implementation on screen. As with all of the Coens' work, it will draw mixed opinion, but I do recommend you take the leap and see it for yourself.

The Disc
Originally released with a shoddy transfer and shocking audio (it wasn't even a Dolby Digital soundtrack!); all things seem to be rectified now by this MGM special edition.

The menu design is good, simple yet effective, with clips from the film and ambient music playing in the background. They are easy to navigate, and follow MGM’s usual menu formatting guidelines.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the visuals are crisp and clear with the (generally sparse) colours well defined, and don't bleed into one another, meaning the picture remains strong and vibrant throughout. Although the odd instance of dust and grain is present, this is acceptable; especially considering the film was hardly shot on an expensive budget. Overall, a competent transfer that is miles better than the one that appeared on the original release.

Although a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is on offer, it doesn't possess the world's greatest use of the surround channels. Instead, it is more of a front-channel affair, but that is down to the nature of the film, and is not a fault of the audio itself. However, now and again the rear channels are used to add some ambience, but on the whole this is an impressive 2.0 soundtrack. It does its job, mind. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are included also.

The original release's sole extra was a trailer, something that again has been put right with this release. Kicking things off is an audio commentary by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is a dry and slow speaker, but offers some insight into the production. Worth listening to on a repeat viewing, although the absence of the Coens is a letdown.

There is an excellent 27-minute documentary, 'Minnesota Nice', which consists of interviews with the main players. Insightful, interesting and amusing, it doesn't drag, and contains some nice anecdotes – and the presence of the Coens is also a nice addition.

Even more material is covered in an excerpt from The Charlie Rose Show, which runs for 20 minutes, consisting of an interview with the Brothers Coen and Frances McDormand, who plays Marge (and is also the wife of Joel). Again, it's interesting, even if its purpose was to promote Fargo.

An informative trivia track is selectable, and when watching the film text will appear on-screen, covering anecdotes to more factual points. People who crave as much insight as they can get into Fargo are certainly well catered for!

Moving into text-based extras, there is an innovative feature entitled 'The Coen Brothers Family Tree'. Featuring the names of actors who appear in their work, it links to filmographies and is a useful tool for those interested.

The extras are rounded off with a trailer and TV spots, an article on the film by the American Cinematographer magazine – featuring a textual interview with Roger Deakins, and a photo gallery.

Memorable and enjoyable, Fargo is a film that doesn't mind shying away from the usual thriller concept, and deserves all the more respect because of it. Served up with some good extras, and good presentation, this is a very worthwhile buy, considering many retailers are now offering the DVD for an excellent price. And for those with the original version, thinking of whether an upgrade is necessary…in one word: yah.

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