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MGM Studios DVD presents
Fargo: SE (1996)

"Sir, you have no cause to get snippy with me. I'm just doing my job here."
- Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: September 29, 2003

Stars: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy
Other Stars: Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare, Jose Feliciano, Steve Park
Director: Joel Coen

Manufacturer: Sunset Digital Studios
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 01h:38m:01s
Release Date: September 30, 2003
UPC: 027616884152
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The films of the Coen brothers can be an acquired taste, but even those who find their other movies off-putting and sterile, empty exercises in filmmaking style, are likely to have a soft spot for Fargo. Maybe it's because the brothers returned to their native Minnesota—you can take the boys out of the Upper Midwest, but you can't take the Upper Midwest out of the boys—or maybe they were just growing up, evolving as filmmakers. Whatever the case, they knocked it squarely out of the park this time out of the box, with a pitiless and moving tale of how a little bit of greed and selfishness can snowball into an event of tragic proportions.

Poor Jerry Lundegaard. He's under the thumb of his imperious father-in-law, Wade, trying to move Oldsmobiles at Wade's dealership; he takes orders from his wife, from her father, he gets batted around by his own customers, but Jerry has big plans. He hatches a scheme, to have his wife kidnapped and ransomed back to him—he'll skim the lion's share of Wade's ransom money, his family will be none the wiser, and he can stop cowering when his father-in-law comes around. That's the idea, anyway, and we know what happens to even the best laid plans.

Jerry takes a burnt umber Ciera from the dealership in Minneapolis to a dive bar in Fargo, North Dakota, where he meets the men he's hired to do the deed: Carl, who won't shut up, and Gaear, for whom speaking is like dentistry. Surprise: things go awry, and turn bloody and lethal. Gaear is more than just a little bit trigger happy, and when a state trooper pulls over the Ciera, Gaear shoots the trooper, and two other witnesses. Things only turn worse from there.

One of the unusual things about Fargo is that it jumps heroes midstream. The movie opens with Jerry as our man—even if he's no good, there's something endearing about his determination, and William H. Macy is terrific in the role. But a little more than half an hour into the movie, our sympathies shift from Jerry to Marge Gunderson, the seven-months-pregnant Brainerd chief of police—Marge now has a triple homicide on her hands, along with morning sickness. Frances McDormand has been rightly celebrated for her performance as Marge, who isn't the most sophisticated or the slickest cop you'll ever encounter, but she's a decent human being, a rare thing in our dark world. It's not the flashiest part, or the funniest, but Marge is good at her job, and has a loving marriage (to Norm, who paints pictures of ducks), and no doubt will be a wonderful mother. In many respects it's Marge who keeps the movie from some of the clinical distance of previous Coen efforts like The Hudsucker Proxy or Barton Fink. There's an insane little detour, for instance, when Marge meets up with Mike Yanagita, a high school chum who pours out his heart to her at the buffet at the Radisson—but we go with it, and so does Marge, because golly, life is hard enough, and even if you're a little crazy, you could probably do with seeing a friendly face. Marge is, along with Clarice Starling, one of the two great female roles of the 1990s—women on the right side of the law, smart, compassionate, effective.

McDormand and Macy are of course beautifully supported by the rest of the cast. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, as Carl and Gaear, are sort of a lethal cross-cultural Laurel and Hardy—they'd be one of the legendary film comedy teams if they weren't so busy killing people. Especially fine too is Harve Presnell, gruff and common-sensical as Wade; it's a long way from Daddy Warbucks for Presnell, and this film marks his welcome return to the screen after years of absence.

The movie is also sort of an incidental essay on the speech patterns of Minnesotans, and the Coens' ears for dialogue and cadence has never been sharper. The lilt in Marge's words is just the most extreme example ("Well, I'm a police officer, from up Brainerd, investigating some malfeasance"); they also love to let their actors relish odd words—when Gaear gets his finger bit, he seethes: "Unguent. I need unguent!" They're colloquial ("Ya got Arby's all over me"), and do occasionally border on the self-conscious with this ("He was funny lookin'. More than most people, even"), but they find the poetry in the repetition, as well: "There's the car, there's the car! My car, my car! Tan Ciera, Tan Ciera!" It can get a little much at times, and yah, you may find yourself talkin' just a little bit like a Minnesotan after watching the film, then, but it's so evocative of the place that it's hard not to love it. This is also a film with a keen sense of weather—the brutalities that many of these characters do to one another are almost reinforced (if not sometimes caused by) it being so unbelievably damn cold.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - P&S
Original Aspect Ratioyesno

Image Transfer Review: Roger Deakins' delicate and beautiful cinematography looks marvelous in this transfer; the colors are crisp, and there's no debris or artifacting evident. The dull greys that can infect those late winter days are captured with surprising vividness and particularity. If you must, flop over the disc for the pan-and-scan version, which butchers the artfully composed frames.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Very, very sharp dynamics in this mix—it's well balanced, and you can make out softer tones at the low end without getting your eardrums blown out by the top of the range. Also, very little aural interference—maybe it was too cold for our friends buzz, hiss and pop.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Blue Velvet
1 TV Spots/Teasers
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Roger Deakins
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:13m:26s

Extra Extras:
  1. trivia track (see below)
  2. photo gallery
  3. article from American Cinematographer
  4. accompanying location map
Extras Review: Here's where this DVD distinguishes itself from the film's previous DVD release. Cinematographer Roger Deakins provides a commentary track, and while his photography is beautiful and he has an obvious fondness for the Coens, whom he refers to as "the boys," he doesn't always have a whole lot to say. He discusses the more restrained shooting style on this film, compared with the two previous effects-laden shoots he had done with them—Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy—and how the tighter budget constraints on Fargo, compared to Hudsucker, actually served the material. One of the big themes, too, is that the winter during which the film was shot was one of the warmest and least snowy in decades; snow had to be trucked in and manufactured to produce some of the desired effects.

There's also a Pop-Up Video-style trivia track, which doesn't offer a whole lot, really—dictionary definitions of relevant terms like "ransom" and "kidnapping" are provided, as well as some competing recipes for fake movie blood. Watching this track along with Deakins's commentary is probably the way to go.

Minnesota Nice (27m:46s) is a newly produced documentary on the film, featuring interviews with the Coens, McDormand, Macy, Buscemi, and Stormare, the last of whom the Coens first saw playing Hamlet in a production directed by Ingmar Bergman. The Coens' home state is the principal topic—they describe it as "Siberia with family restaurants," and given the huge number of Scandinavian émigrés and their descendants, Swedish native Stormare found Minnesota to be "more Sweden than Sweden." So if everybody in Minnesota is so genuinely nice, what gives with all the violence in the film? "Polite cultures are usually the most repressed, and therefore the most violent," according to the boys.

Also included is a segment from The Charlie Rose Show (20m:30s) from the film's original theatrical release, with the brothers and McDormand; one of the principal subjects is whether or not this is a true story, as an opening title card insists. The Blue Velvet trailer is for the DVD of that film; and both the original Fargo trailer and TV spot feature not Carter Burwell's terrific score for the movie, but a delicate piano rendition of Duke Ellington's Caravan.

You'll also find a behind-the-scenes photo gallery, in which the theme is—no surprise—the cold; and a reproduction of an article originally published in American Cinematographer, on Deakins and his work with the Coens. All you'd care to know about lens lengths and film stock is included, along with photos and diagrams. There's also sort of a rotten Easter egg. Behind Jerry's head on the Special Features menu is a snow globe; click on it, and you may have think you've found something hidden, but instead you'll find only another set of identical menus. You can port back to the first set of menus by clicking through on the Chapter Stops section of the second. Finally and more rewarding is the packaging—the case is housed in a sleeve which covers everything with snow, and especially fun is the back side of the case cover, which features a map highlighting the locations of the film's principal story points.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Fargo is less than a decade old, but already it feels and seems like a classic—a taut story, ambitious and successful technical elements, a script with both compassion and judgment, a terrific ensemble of actors. The Coens continue to produce work of the highest caliber, but it's hard to imagine them equaling or surpassing what they did here, with a return trip to their hometown. A reasonably strong package of extras make this disc even more enticing than the fricassee Marge so enjoys at the smorgasbord. Go Gophers!


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