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No. 31: “Fargo” (1996)

“I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.” ~~Marge Gunderson

Writer Elbert Hubbard posited an interesting theory about the rather opposite problems of brilliance and nitwittedness: “Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.” Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s caper-gone-wrong/thriller/bloody comedy (blood-com?) “Fargo” is like watching Hubbard’s words come to life — funny, outlandish, kooky life. For “Fargo,” with few exceptions, is populated with the sort of numbskulls who could not find their nether regions with both hands and a miner’s helmet. Watching them try and fail makes for A-plus doofy comedy, but with a sinister and violent twist. 

Chief among these morons is Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), a shady, incompetent Minneapolis car salesman who’s hemorrhaging cash. He hatches a plot to get his hands on some green that he’s certain is foolproof (uh oh). Mostly Jerry just needs money, but there’s a small part of him that craves excitement and power; he does, after all, live under his rich father-in-law’s (Harve Presnell) thumb. Macy’s stammering anxiety is a boon to “Fargo,” since nobody plays a loser who wants to be cool quite as adeptly as he does. Thus, Jerry hires two local thugs, Carl (the eminently watchable Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare, by turns comic and ungodly creepy), to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd). In exchange, he’ll give these hoods a new car and half of the $80,000 ransom. But Jerry has plans for a double-cross of sorts that, according to Murphy’s Law and to Coen Law, he will not pull off. Guys who look and sound like William H. Macy never pull off such plots in movies.

There are two things that poor, dopey Jerry hasn’t counted on. First and foremost is that the criminal’s he has hired are about as gifted in the art of crime perpetration as, say, the Three Stooges on a bad day. Carl is jittery and absolutely incapable of keeping his cool. (The film’s best throwaway knee-slapper: Buscemi lets loose with “Whoa, daddy!” when Gaear suddenly shoots a trooper in Brainerd, Minn.) Gaear affects an ominous stare and rarely talks, which gives him an air — totally erroneous, of course — of competence. The second thing that knocks Jerry for a loop is Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, deserving of that Best Actress Oscar for her cheerful performance), Brainerd’s police chief. Although she, like everyone else in “Fargo,” sports that too-crazy-to-be-fake Minnesota dialect, saying things like “oh, yah” and “dontchaknow,” she’s no intellectual lightweight. Within minutes of finding the dead trooper in the snow, she’s accurately recreated the crime scene and starts the search for two criminals. McDormand, a veritable chameleon of an actress, plays up this rather astounding discrepancy to marvelous comic effect. The combination of the “aw, shucks” accent and her razor-sharp intellect is killer.

In Coen fashion, the events in “Fargo” unfold in such crazy ways that it’s best not to pull too hard on any one thread. This film, a mooshed-up concoction of genres, contains that principle that underlies so many of Joel and Ethan’s films: The more power we think we wield over any set of circumstances, the less we really do. In “Fargo” this idea is played for laughs dark- and light-hearted, with director Joel Coen leaning heavily upon his strange native tongue to provide a stark contrast to the chilly white landscape (ably provided by Roger Deakins). The characters, too, offer more than enough color, with Macy’s wannabe kingpin serving up chuckles galore with his ineptitude (i.e., he wants to KO the kidnapping but can’t because he doesn’t have another contact number for Carl). Buscemi, doing his best Buscemi impression, and Stormare, undervalued as a comic actor, are a bloody-fun Felix/Oscar team. They’re like the blockheads on “World’s Dumbest Criminals,” only more cartoonish. McDormand and John Carroll Lynch as Marge’s doting husband are the only characters approaching anything halfway near “nuanced,” and even they are drawn in bold strokes.

Still, if there were nuance, would we have zingers like “Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn’t afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?” Probably not, and that would be a tragedy. Darn tootin’.

Review: “The Killing Room” (2009)

(The movie recommendation came courtesy of Marc from G-C-T, who dubbed “The Killing Room” an offbeat gem in this post.)

“The Killing Room” is an instructional film in the sense that it has a lesson to teach us: There’s something about a locked room with white walls that all the special effects and torture implements in the world can’t touch. Mark this down as a makeover of the extremest type for director Jonathan Liebesman, who in the dreadful “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” saw subtlety in half with a chainsaw, then made his actors to roll around in its drippins. Apparently he learned his lesson because “The Killing Room” is an exercise in restraint — the psychological, relentlessly tense kind that squeezes the air right out of your lungs and frays the nerves. Prepare to be shaken, and hard.

With nary a sound, the film opens with a series of notes about highly classified, secretive experiments sanctioned by the U.S. government designed to determine the breaking point of the human mind. Most believe the program was shut down, but the eerie Dr. Phillips (Peter Stormare) knows better. Hardened by years of experience, he offers Ms. Reilly (Chloë Sevigny), the young military psychologist determined to join his team, the chance to bail out when she’s barely set foot in the facility — not a promising sign. Yet even Reilly, described as “ruthless” by her superiors, can’t hide her horror at what she sees happen to the experiment participants: Kerry (Clea DuVall), Paul (Nick Cannon), Crawford (Timothy Hutton) and Tony (Shea Wigham). Lured in by the promise of a $250 payout, they expect to kill a few hours bubbling in dots with No. 2 pencils, maybe studying a few Rorschach prints or talking about their feelings. Dr. Phillips’ sudden point-blank execution of one of the participants puts a bullet in their misconceptions.

The lump sum of what mind-warping, psyche-shattering things that happen to Kerry, Paul, Crawford and Tony is best left for viewers to discover, for even though Gus Krieger and Ann Peacock’s taut, measured screenplay doesn’t reinvent the lightbulb it still contains a few surprises (including a monumentally disturbing, sock-you-in-the-stomach conclusion). Or perhaps it’s more on point to say that the writers use the script to lay a series of traps for the viewers to fall into. Every time. Consider this: The remaining candidates, now quivering with shock, are instructed to give numerical answers to a series of questions, and those numbers determine who will die second, then third. Random selection, however, doesn’t appear to suit Dr. Phillips’ personality, but he keeps his motives hidden until the end — a device that, again, isn’t terribly original but is terribly effective … especially because it’s Peter “Grimsrud” Stormare, who, like Jackie Earle Haley, possesses the unique ability to conjure skin-crawling menace without uttering a syllable.

Almost without exception, the rest of the actors deliver strong turns meant not to show great depth of character (“The Killing Room” isn’t that kind of film) but to enhance the atmosphere of unrelenting constriction Liebesman sets up. They fall neatly into types, not personalities, which makes “The Killing Room” all the more impersonal and frightening. Within the first five minutes, Hutton establishes Crawford as the alpha male of the bunch, a survivalist capable of nimble thinking and even quicker footwork who hides protective instincts. Wigham immediately identifies Tony as the conspiracy theorist prone to losing his cool in high-stress situations, while Cannon — a likable enough actor if not a great or even particularly good one — adapts well to Paul’s role as the taciturn mysterious loner/wild card, the character so shifty that everyone implicity mistrusts him.

Equally enigmatic, though, is Sevigny’s Ms. Reilly. Never a showy actress, Sevigny lets the character seem remote and aloof in her words, but the eyes and mouth reveal her inner struggle. She seems at most points like one of the participants: unhinged and scared, searching for any exit strategy. In another way, though, Reilly functions as a stand-in for viewers themselves. For much of the film, she knows little more than we do. Presented from her limited, uninformed onlooker perspective, “The Killing Room” becomes even more disconcerting. She can’t escape the maze she’s in, and so there’s no hope for us, either.

Grade: B+