By Tony Schwab, staff writer
The Coen brothers love to leave a great deal unsaid. So many of their movies, like “The Man Who Wasn’t There to Hail” or “Caesar” hint at some grand force operating just behind the scenes. It is grand and all-encompassing even as it is cruel, harsh and ironic. This vague mystical feeling could be called the idea around which much of their works revolve.
“Fargo,” maybe their best, is full of their normal irony, but its themes are much clearer and simpler than usual. It is about the ideal, close knit family and the misery that comes from abandoning it. As in a lot of Coen movies, the heroes are good, traditional Americans, overcoming the wretched corruption around them. Unlike most movies with this stance, “Fargo” has a large enough understanding of evil to make the good shine through.
Good manifests itself in Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, an Oscar-winning role. The role is famous for its mannerisms, as McDormand puts on a slightly over the top Midwestern accent. But what makes her great is how intelligent and brave she is as her investigation goes on.
The supporting cast of desperate losers is led by two of the all-time great character actors. Steve Buscemi is Carl, the outraged kidnapper. He seems to be horribly worn down, jaded by his life of crime with the same sense of mundane annoyance he would have were he an accountant. William H. Macy is Jerry, a talentless crook, resembling Jack Lemon on “The Simpsons.” He is all the sadder for how well he plays his scenes with his wife, children and father-in-law. He loves his family enough to kidnap his wife, out of some twisted idea of the greater good.
The plot is perfect even as it leaves room for lots of atmosphere, asides and comic relief. With the anarchic mood established early on, any ending seems possible. It is just as easy to imagine the Coens killing of Marge as letting her triumph.
This makes the ending a genuine twist, with the final dialogue between Marge and her husband pointing towards an optimistic future.
“Fargo” came in the middle of an incredible run for the Coen’s, after “Millers Crossing,” “Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy” and before “The Big Lebowski” closed out the 90’s. This is as good a decade as anyone in the US has ever had, and the movies do seem to be of a piece. None of them have the overall seriousness of later Coen work. They all play with a genre, but call attention to its falseness. Overall, they have the feeling of Hollywood genre work from the 30’s and 40’s, an era when writing was the real art, not directing. It is this writing-first mentality that has made them such consistent craftsman even as they are so eclectic visually.