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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chilly Wit From the Brothers Coen

The Coen Brothers' 1996 hit film, "Fargo," finally available on video in Moscow, arrives freighted with Oscar acclaim -- six nominations for Monday's Academy Awards. This golden glow may give a slightly exaggerated aura of greatness to the movie, but it is without doubt an excellent piece of work.

What kind of movie is it? As always with Ethan and Joel (they collaborate on screenplays and editing, while Joel does the directing), it's impossible to say. Crime drama? Social satire? Tragical farce? Farcical tragedy? Any of these would be accurate, but none complete. "Garrison Keillor meets David Lynch" gives us an idea of the territory the brothers have staked out.

It is, we are told, the true story of a small-time extortion scam gone horribly and bloodily wrong. But although crime is definitely on the menu, "Fargo" is a film perhaps more blanc than noir, considering its setting in the bright snowscapes of North Dakota and Minnesota -- and the quietly radiant performance of its star, Frances McDormand. She plays Marge Gunderson, a heavily pregnant police chief who must unravel the skein of death and deception that rolls into her small town one winter's day. Although Marge comes on like some perky housewife in an old coffee commercial, she is just as relentless -- and effective -- a sleuth as any Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

The plot is fairly simple: A feckless car salesman (William Macy) hires a pair of seedy types (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, in order to bilk some cash out of his rich in-laws. Unfortunately, his confederates are not master criminals; they cut a Katzenjammer-like trail across the American North that turns minor glitches into major disasters and leaves a string of bodies behind.

But method, not matter, is the chief thing here, as in the Coens' other films: "Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink," "The Hudsucker Proxy," etc. Like these -- excellent pictures all -- "Fargo" is totally lacking in heart. Not just in the sense of Hollywood schmaltz, which is always better dispensed with, but also in terms of a more genuine human presence. The film is cold; a feast of cleverness, suggesting much, signifying little.That said, it is a most delicious feast. The performances are uniformly excellent; in addition to McDormand's Oscar-nominated turn, and Macy's white-bread whiner, Buscemi is particularly good as the classic small-time loser, invariably described by witnesses as "that funny-looking guy." Several of the scenes are very funny: the bungling kidnap scene, for example; but the brothers keep them from breaking loose into the broad comedy and satirical surrealism of "Raising Arizona" or "Barton Fink."

This discretion is necessary because "Fargo" is, at bottom, an examination of the petty evil that sits gnawing in our darkest corners, offset here by the brisk goodness of Marge and her docile husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch). Again, because the film has no heart, we are not really engaged by this agon of evil and good, but we can certainly enjoy the wit and ingenuity of its presentation. And perhaps this air of cool remove is for the best, for if the Coens ever bring their dramatic gifts to bear on a work of truly human depth, the result could be profound and disturbing indeed.

-- Chris Floyd

"Fargo" is available at Video Express, 15 Malaya Dmitrovka. Tel. 733-9284.