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‘Fargo: Collector’s Edition’ 4K UHD (review)

Shout! Factory

Fargo is one of the greatest American films of all time.

Like Hannah and Her Sisters, it has the feeling of a great novel with multiple levels of symbolism and deep thematic concerns competing for space in its perfectly paced 98 minutes.

I confess now that if you’re merely reading this in order to decide whether or not the film is worth watching on its merits, you may stop at this point and proceed directly to it.

First, a refresher on the plot for those whose memories require it: Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) desperately needs money and hatches up an insane plan: he will pay two petty criminals Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi and Peter Storemare) to kidnap his wife in order to extort a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) while keeping everyone else in the dark.

The plan goes horribly, horribly, wrong and the very pregnant Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) must unravel the increasingly bizarre and surreal case.

One of the primary themes of the film is the nature of truth and stories. The film is entirely fictional but begins with the following disclaimer:

“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

According to star William H. Macy, the Coens included this preamble as an experiment to see if the audience would be more open to the bizarre and escalating fiasco at the center of the film if they believed it had happened in reality first. This decision has the cascading effect of elevating the entire story from just one about crime, to one about truth.

Marge Gunderson isn’t just trying to solve a case but return to a place of truth and goodness, and it is encounter with an old schoolmate who tells her a series of bizarre lies that allows her to return to Jerry Lundegaard, having seemingly free associated the two men’s desperation over a drive thru cheeseburger.

What’s wonderfully layered into this heady theme is social deception: the culture of “Minnesota Nice” a carefully choreographed dance of always remaining polite even when you’re put out or confused.

Fargo wrings enormous comedic value out of hardened criminals bouncing off bewildered civilians who are desperately trying to remain civil even when they’re witnessing anti-social or dangerous behavior. The same homey smile that is to be found on the honest and good hearted Gundersons can be found on the wily and dangerous Jerry Lundegaard and the social custom that is designed to protect people from having to put out their real feelings becomes a danger as it also camouflages the depths of deception.

On the same note: it’s a minor thing but I absolutely adore the scene where Buscemi’s character takes an escort out for the night and she turns out to be hilariously rude to him. It’s like the one criminal character you would expect to be artificially nice, has lost all patience with the situation.

Juxtaposed to this theme of false politeness is the idea of “witnessing” and implicitly whether God is watching what is going on.

Time and time again the film seems to pull back from a particularly big emotional beat and simply observe, bringing out the cosmic irony in the personal struggle. The most famous instance of this is in the famous finale where Marge is delivering her monologue about it being a beautiful day under the giant, unblinking, eyes of the Paul Bunyun statue but I’m also partial to the moment where Buscemi hides the unexpected remainder of the ransom in a snowbank, marked with a single hand sized ice scraper. The camera pulls back to reveal he’s in a completely featureless void of snow as far as the eye can see and that scraper is going to be useless in about five minutes.

Extras include commentary, featurette, interviews, article and photo gallery, and trailer and tv spot.

As much as the thematic concerns are fun to write about they’re nothing without the incredible web of characters Fargo weaves: the strangely innocent schemer Lundegaard, the polar opposite criminals who act as a kind of homicidal Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even the polite to a fault normal folks who cheerfully relay to the police their encounters with the criminals.

Fargo has such a clear and distinct voice for humanity as it lays its concerns over us that it’s always working on multiple levels.

It is high art.

Highly recommended.

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