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The thing about this movie is that it earns the wood-chipper. Dark, thoughtful, brutally efficient, and understated in its hilarity, FARGO just might be the Coens’ crowning achievement.

The film begins with hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, incomparably pathetic) hatching a plot with two sleazeballs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife and collect the ransom from her rich asshole of a dad. We never find out exactly what kind of trouble Jerry is in, but that’s the beauty of FARGO. The Coens’ rich characterization does enough that such details don’t matter. It’s a wonder to watch Jerry stutter his way through confrontations, imprisoned in his office by tacky vertical blinds. This was how his story was bound to wind up. Meanwhile, we watch hypnotized as the film’s minimalist threads all converge with violent logic.

Despite its wry grimness and ever-escalating tension, FARGO holds a moral center lots of films aspire to champion but few actually justify. Not appearing until nearly midway through the movie, plucky pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is called upon to investigate the string of murders left (unbeknownst to her) in the wake of Jerry’s faulty kidnapping plan. Marge, the unlikeliest of noir protagonists, gabs and smiles her way through the grisliness, but she’s more on point than we may at first realize. As the bodies and lies pile up, her Midwestern good nature and no-nonsense logic are forced at odds. Yet her innate hopefulness remains intact. Marge is one of the strongest female characters to ever grace the screen and she sticks in our memories long after the bizarre proceedings have have come to their inevitably messy end. We can learn a lot from her: “There’s more to life than a little bit of money, ya know,” she says near the end of the film. “…And here you are. And it’s a beautiful day.”

For a duo whose every film is worth seeing (and you can see all 16 this month at the Brattle’s career-spanning retrospective), it would misguided to pick one and call it their “best”. But FARGO has all the elements for which the Coens are celebrated and, more importantly, doesn’t force a damn one: the twisty botched-crime plot, the regionally-mined humor, the grounded humanity amidst a sneaking absurdity. The only thing missing is the hit revivalist soundtrack album (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS will pick up that card), though that’s probably due to the film’s intense lullaby-like musical score, based in part on a sinister-sounding Norwegian folk song called “The Lost Sheep”. Not exactly minivan material. Still awesome.

The Complete Coens – FARGO

Wednesday, December 11, 5:00pm & 7:00pm

The Brattle Theater (40 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA 02138)

General admission $10


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