Release Date(s)1996 (Septemeber 30, 2003)
Studio(s)Polygram/MGM (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
One way to gauge a truly great movie is by your inability to predict how your nearest and dearest will react to it. For instance, I remember my then-70-year-old grandmother telling me, “Oh, my girlfriend and I just saw the funniest movie! What was it called? Oh, yes. Wanda the Fish.” As astonishing as it was that Grandma had gone to the movies without me dragging her there, that was nothing compared to the simple fact that she had seen and enjoyed A Fish Called Wanda. But perhaps the single biggest mass surprise of my movie-going life was the reaction of my entire Minnesota based family to the Coen Brothers’ Fargo.
I’d been a Coen fan for as long as they’d been making movies and personally, I thought they’d captured the Land of 10,000 Lakes to a tee. But I really didn’t know what the rest of my family would make of the bleak cinematography, ever-shifting tone and, yes, those accents. I figured they’d think it was too weird, too violent. Wrong on all counts. They loved it. As for the accents, well... let’s just say you really haven’t lived unless you’ve heard people who ordinarily speak with heavy Minnesota accents do broad impersonations of William H. Macy and Frances McDormand in Fargo.
The surprises didn’t end there. A huge cross-section of people felt the same way my family did, turning Fargo into the biggest hit of the Coens’ career so far. The movie won a pair of Academy Awards, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for McDormand, in addition to a wide range of other accolades. Prior to Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen had been respected filmmakers whose movies played primarily to a small but loyal cult. They had achieved some measure of success with Raising Arizona, but that film also earned them (unfairly in my opinion) the reputation of prizing style over substance. Subsequent movies like Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink didn’t do much to change that. Neither did The Hudsucker Proxy, a gargantuan screwball comedy that marked an unlikely collaboration between the Coens and uber-producer Joel Silver and quickly sank at the box office.
Since Fargo, the Coens have pretty much gone back to what they were in the first place... respected filmmakers whose movies play primarily to a small but loyal cult. People who like The Big Lebowski seem to absolutely love it but there’s no question it only reached a fraction of the audience that Fargo did. Audiences responded much more favorably to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack than to the movie itself, while both The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty vanished off most radars pretty quickly. But almost ten years after its premiere, Fargo endures.
For the record, Fargo is not my personal favorite of the Coens’ films. But what’s remarkable about their body of work is that if you talk to most anybody about the Coens, they will have fairly strong opinions about which of their movies they like the best. And people don’t seem to compare their movies to films by other filmmakers. They rank them in their own little hierarchy as if the Coens and their movies somehow stand apart from other, more ordinary films. And in many ways, I believe they do. I’d argue that a subpar effort from the Coens is at least twice as entertaining as most other pictures. A lot of things differentiate the Coens’ work from other filmmakers but for me, the three key elements that make a Coen movie a Coen movie are the writing, the look, and the casting.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that two of the Coens’ weakest films to date have employed outside or additional screenwriters: The Hudsucker Proxy (co-written by longtime friend and collaborator Sam Raimi) and the recent Intolerable Cruelty, which began its life as a screenplay by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Fargo, on the other hand, is pure Joel and Ethan. Based on a true story (he said with a straight face), Fargo is on its surface a thriller about a kidnapping scheme gone wrong. But despite what their critics would have you believe, the Coens are never just about surface appearances. Their screenplay brings even the most minor characters and events to life, creating a world that is insular, unique and, above all, believable. Coen scripts prize story above plot, a distinction that a lot of struggling screenwriters would do well to learn. The scene between Marge Gunderson and her old classmate Mike Yanagita does nothing to advance the plot but it’s essential in advancing Marge’s story. Likewise, the fact that Marge is pregnant seems to have nothing to do with anything but it’s a key element in creating her character.
The Coens’ carefully crafted characters would merely be lines on a page, however, if it weren’t for their amazing eye for casting. McDormand and Steve Buscemi are both alumni of the Coens’ loose repertory company of frequent players and the brothers’ familiarity with the actors allow them to craft characters that play to their strengths. William H. Macy is brilliantly squirmy as Jerry Lundegaard, a performance that should have earned him an Oscar, too. But the Coens’ strength in casting doesn’t just apply to lead actors. Every single person who appears on film is perfectly cast, from Harve Presnell as Wade on down to the girl grinning behind the counter at the restaurant. This kind of eye for detail is exceedingly rare and the Coens’ skill in this area is matched perhaps only by Preston Sturges and Fellini.
Their remarkable cinematographer, Roger Deakins, shares their eye for detail. Deakins began working with the Coens on Barton Fink and has remained an invaluable part of their team ever since. With Fargo, Deakins captures a Minnesota landscape previously unseen on film. White, flat and isolated, this is miles away from the homier Midwest of Grumpy Old Men. Here, you can feel the subzero temperatures, particularly during Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s nighttime run-in with a state trooper, lit only by car headlights and brake lights. The visual calisthenics of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Raising Arizona are mostly kept under wraps here, but that doesn’t make the film any less visually exciting.
Fargo was one of the first DVDs I ever owned. This would be the original Polygram release, way back when they were (A) still around and (B) releasing titles in those god-awful hard plastic cases that slid open at the bottom and encouraged you to bend or break the disc trying to pry it out of there. When MGM originally obtained the rights to the Polygram library, they released their own version of Fargo that was basically the same, albeit in a more user-friendly keepcase. At last, they’ve gotten around to reissuing a decent special edition of the title that, while not exactly a home run, is still head and shoulders above every other version we’ve seen so far. The picture is certainly improved, though still a bit below what we’ve come to consider reference quality (a full-frame version is included on side B for those of you who dislike seeing things the way their creators intended). Not surprisingly, the audio is solid but not spectacular. It’s a dialogue-driven movie and all I really expect from such films is that I don’t have to fiddle with the volume control every two seconds just to hear what people are saying. In that regard, Fargo passes with flying colors.
As for bonus features, we’re not looking at a deep vault of treasures but what’s here is certainly worth your time. You don’t have to block off a weekend to get through the Fargo bonuses but you’ll have a good time with them for an afternoon or so. You might be tempted to skip the commentary, figuring that a track by a cinematographer just means they couldn’t wrangle up a bigger name, like the Coens themselves or McDormand, Macy or Buscemi. That would be a mistake. Roger Deakins’ commentary is informative and affectionate, both for the movie and the Coens in general. Deakins strikes a nice balance between technical information and a more general overview of the shoot. The pop-up trivia track, on the other hand, didn’t do too much to change my opinion of features like this one. They always end up reaching for tangential facts that have nothing to do with the movie in order to fill out the running time. Still, there are a couple of interesting nuggets buried in there, including the Coens’ aborted plan on what to do if their pseudonymous editor, Roderick Jaynes, actually won the Oscar for Best Film Editing.
The half-hour documentary, Minnesota Nice, is a fine, albeit far too brief, look at the making of the film, including new interviews with most of the principal players. Also included on the disc is a 1996 segment from The Charlie Rose Show featuring the Coens and Frances McDormand and an article reprinted from the pages of “American Cinematographer.” Both of these are very good, though it did make me wonder why so many discs these days include either Charlie Rose or “American Cinematographer.” It must be very easy to obtain the rights to these things. Rounding out the disc are a photo gallery, the original trailer, a TV spot, a plug for MGM’s Blue Velvet special edition, and a couple of hidden goodies: an alternate menu design is hidden as an Easter egg and an alternate roadmap-style sleeve design is printed on the other side of the keepcase’s sleeve.
All told, MGM’s special edition is a solid effort, even if it’s bound to leave hardcore Coen fans wanting more. But perhaps that’s as it should be. After all, Fargo was never meant to be the huge phenomenon it became. It was a small, quirky movie that nobody really expected would find an audience. An in-depth two-disc special edition that leaves no stone unturned would likely overwhelm this little picture and rob it of much of its charm, its mystery, and its homespun feel. MGM’s DVD is perfectly in keeping with the film itself. It’s a small, quirky, self-contained gem that manages to be perfectly satisfying and still leave you wanting more.
- Adam Jahnke