There's something almost farcical about Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen's new movie about a series of murders in wintry, rural Brainerd, Minn. (The brothers' collaborative screenplay adapts a true story; Joel directed.) The characters are virtually all plain folk of Scandinavian stock, and their speech mingles the elongated vowels of their Canadian neighbors with the omnipresent yah, a relic of the old country pressed into service not merely as “yes” but as a response to almost any comment or situation — a bumpkinish verbal tic. The Coen brothers (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona) are plainly in love with the stoogy yah (they're from Minneapolis), but, with sly snottiness, they have their characters say it so often that it becomes a kind of one-syllable punch line.
The endless “yah”s signal a general amicability among the inhabitants of Minnesota — decency as public virtue. These are the sort of people who will help a stranger push his car out of a snow-filled ditch; they're also — a paradox? — the sort of people who occasionally spawn a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer. The movie draws its strength from holding in expert balance its gently comic portrayal of Minnesotans and, simultaneously, its unblinking examination of a small crime exploding into a murderous fireball.
At first glance the killings seem dissonant, a bit of urban grit improbably lodged in a pristine arctic landscape, like fallout from a faraway meltdown; in small Upper Midwestern towns, the most recent murder was often 20 years ago. But in the end, Fargo makes the connection between its placid social surface and the human squalor and desperation trapped beneath it, like a swimmer struggling beneath the ice of a frozen lake. Small-town Midwestern societies aren't fluid; people know their places and are expected to keep to them. The rigid manners are either comforting or suffocating, depending on one's circumstances. There's no room for mess.
For Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) — a slightly shady car salesman and husband to a woman whose rich father holds him in contempt — life has become suffocating. The Coens never exactly say what “personal matters” drive Jerry to rash action, but they're plainly financial, because he hatches a scheme to raise money by having his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud), kidnapped, then splitting the ransom with the goons he has hired to do the job. The ransom money is to come from Jean's wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), who also owns the car dealership where Jerry toils.
It looks like a sweet deal — the perfect crime. Nobody gets hurt, everybody gets paid, and Jerry gets the incidental pleasure of squeezing the dough out of the lordly old man who makes a pleasurable habit of dissing him. But from the first appearance of the goons, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), it's clear that Jerry is in over his head. Buscemi, with his scrawny mobster looks, is conspicuously out of place in Minnesota (“funny-looking” is how the natives repeatedly describe him), while Stormare, despite his Nordic princeliness, has the bright, cold eyes of a wolf — or a psychokiller.
Jerry, meanwhile, fidgets and sweats in his bad suits, his slightly buggy eyes forever darting from side to side, as if he's expecting a reprimand. He's almost a caricature of a guilty chump, as Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) recognizes instantly, behind her empty-headed grin and dotty patter.
The case has landed in her lap (which is already full: She's pregnant) because three people — including a state patrol officer — have been found shot to death on the outskirts of town. The getaway car has been traced to Jerry's lot in Minneapolis. His denials of knowledge are more damningly eloquent than any confession could be.
McDormand's Marge is nearly like a character who has wandered in from Northern Exposure — daffily brilliant, an absent-minded savant. Macy's Jerry, on the other hand, embodies the film's animating contradiction between decency and raw need. Even in his cheesiest moments, he's pitiable rather than hateful, a weak, dim man unable to imagine the ways in which his plan is reckless and might go fatally wrong. When Showalter calls him into his office to demand more money after the killings, Jerry's response is “a deal's a deal.” He treats the transaction like a used-car sale; he doesn't know any other way.
In the Coens' cinematography, Minnesota looks positively Siberian, a ghostly, flat landscape buried in snow and lighted only by a pale blue sun. Even body fluids are chilled: When Marge examines the trooper's corpse the morning after he's been shot, the blood from his head wound has frozen on his snow-dusted face. The man no longer looks human; he's like a piece of frozen meat.
“That's a real shame,” Marge says to her fellow officer.
“Yah,” he says, nodding.
The cold land has a cruel beauty; it's serene and at the same time mortally dangerous. Its unbounded spaciousness closes in. Jerry feels it; the Coens perfectly capture his desperation by photographing him in his glass-walled office, silently — ineffectually — beating folders on his desk. He's frantic, trapped, on display, helpless, like an animal in a zoo.
The real — and wild — animal in the movie is Grimsrud. At first he seems like nothing more than the garrulous Buscemi's taciturn, possibly retarded sidekick. But when he drills the cop through the forehead (in a scene powerfully reminiscent of The Thin Blue Line), even Showalter is stunned. And when he speeds off in the car to execute a pair of passers-by, there's a gleam of excitement in his eye: He likes killing people, and there's nothing in the film to keep him from doing so.
Except, maybe, the pregnant police chief of Brainerd, a Godforsaken ice burg whose claim to fame is being “the home of Paul Bunyan”? It sounds like a bad joke. But the Coen brothers work their magic on the mismatch, fusing farce and thriller into something uniquely transcendent. They call it “a homespun murder story,” but that's too modest. It's brilliant.
Fargo opens Fri, March 8, at area theaters.