Saturday, July 2, 2011

Going Too Far

"THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."

The words quoted above appear in the opening credits of the Joel & Ethan Coen film Fargo (1996). They don't exactly mean anything, least of all that the film represents a true and accurate account of real events. In fact, the words, like the "events", are pure fancy. They simply mean that the Coens were trying their hand(s) at verisimilitude. The title, which is the place from which the killers come, could as easily have been Out of Their Depth.

The Coens, who grew up outside Minneapolis, have a gift for the particularities of regional American speech. They caught the West Texas twang beautifully in No Country for Old Men (2007). The "Minnesota nice" accent is captured in Fargo in all its broad oddness. Perhaps it was no accident that Scandinavians, accustomed to a landscape at least as inhospitable, and from whom the accent is derived, settled in Minnesota. Hearing men and women say things like "Thanks a bunch", and "You're darn tootin'" added an almost surreal dimension to the proceedings.

Fargo was a strange choice for the Coens, since it didn't allow them room for their customary non sequitur burlesque - the same burlesque that prevented all of their films from achieving anything more substantial than quirkiness. The Coens indulge themselves, if at all, in their unusual casting choices. Frances McDormand, whom Johnny Depp impersonated nicely in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004), is perfect as Marge Gunderson, seven months pregnant but already big as a house. (Her eating is a running gag.) She's a full time policewoman in Brainerd, cares for her husband (Harve Presnell) but still has enough compassion for a lovelorn old classmate, whom she meets in Minneapolis. (Steve Park's character, Mike Yanagita, is beautifully observed in just one brief scene.)

William H. Macy, whose meagre talents have been stretched rather thinly in the last five years, overacts egregiously as the car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, who comes up with the deceptively simple plan to hire two men (Steven Buscemi and Peter Storemare) to kidnap his wife so he can get money out of his tightwad father-in-law. Buscemi, a veteran of a gallery of film loonies, is perfectly cast as a hired killer whom witnesses invariably describe as "funny looking".

In my review of
No Country for Old Men, I mentioned its resemblances to Fargo - the law officer protagonist, the case full of cash, the psychopathic killer (the Peter Storemare character commits five of the seven murders in the film), the particularized regional landscape and accents. I thought then that No Country failed to hold the serious territory it had staked out because the Coens resorted to some tired thriller cliches that invalidated it. Fargo is more effective, not least because of its avoidance of cliches. Even the most violent scenes are treated with a brevity and lack of emphasis that gives them the feel of unpremeditated life. A potentially macabre moment, like Peter Storemare's character trying to force a man's - evidently Buscemi's - into the wood chipper, has enough arresting detail (all that blood on the snow) to make it almost comical. A heavier hand would've ruined it. The Coens' habitual carelessness with violence is actually a plus in Fargo, since the story, however "true", is about what happens when perfectly normal people think they have a good enough reason to commit serious crime.

Even if there was a similar case in 1986, in Connecticut, in which a man murdered his wife and tried to dispose of her body using a wood chipper, the Coens were employing creative license by calling their story "true". But, ultimately, no amount of sticking to facts can redeem a film if it exceeds the limits of truth. Fargo succeeds in being convincingly true despite its being based on a "true story".

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