Special Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare
Director: Joel Coen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, Full Screen 1.33:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 98 Minutes
Release Date: September 30, 2003

“You want your own wife kidnapped?”


“You…My point is…you pay the ransom, what, $80,000? I mean, you give us half the ransom, $40,000, you keep half. It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Film ****

The filmmaking team of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have had a reputation for defining utter originality in the work they display in cinema. You could probably pick out any one of their films to illustrate this point, and yet the one the bears the best example is unmistakably Fargo, the film which remains not only my pick for the best film of 1996, but the Coen Brothers’ signature masterpiece.

There’s never been a film with a sweet side as in Fargo. There’s hardly ever been a film with such a violent side as Fargo. In other words, it’s the kind of work that only the Coens’ can pull off flawlessly. Their unique style of storytelling, which has been a common element of their previous work, from Blood Simple to Miller’s Crossing, has now been perfected in their interpretation of the plot scenario involving a simple crime gone horribly wrong.

The film, as it appears in the opening, is based on a true incident which the Coen Brothers later admitted wasn’t. The central plot involves a kidnapping scheme devised by Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a sweet but ultimately pathetic car salesman in Minneapolis. Jerry travels up to Fargo, ND to confirm the kidnapping scheme with his hired henchmen, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaer Grimsrud (Peter Stormare).

The kidnapping scheme is ultimately complicated, for reasons that can only be explained by Jerry. He’s in need of some financing money, and is afraid to ask for it from his wealthy father in law since he assumes he won’t get it. The plot involves the kidnapping of Jerry’s wife to ensure a guaranteed payment from the father in law, with Jerry and the two thugs splitting the ransom.

From this point on, things go just about as south as they can possibly go. Following the kidnapping, Carl and Gaer get pulled over by a trooper in the quiet town of Brainerd, MN, and the result is a bloody triple homicide, the victims being the trooper and two witnesses. What is made clear by this point is that this simple kidnapping plot has now evolved into a situation that neither of the culprits can grasp a handle on.

Enter Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), the super sweet police chief of Brainerd. Even in the midst of a harsh pregnancy, Marge is still able to put the pieces together when she gets a call regarding the three roadside victims. Her brains match the power of her heart, as she puts together the crime the way she thinks it happened, which evidently add up with what actually happened.  

Meanwhile, Jerry is on the verge of an explosive panic attack once he gets word from Carl that blood has been shed. And things only worsen when the father in law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) decides to handle the delivery of the ransom money himself, even as Jerry insists that the kidnappers demanded that they only deal with him. It all leads to a number of violent and bloody incidents that, if you’ve never seen this film before, is bound to shock your socks off, for lack of a better phrase.

This is one of those rare cases where everything associated with the making of the film is done so right, and so accurately, that you wish all films could be made in the same process. Everything ranging from script, directing, cinematography, and most especially, acting is mastered at the highest level of brilliance. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, credited on such films as Courage Under Fire and The Shawshank Redemption, captures the look and feel of the harsh winter landscapes of Minnesota and North Dakota, that you can just about feel the coldness as you watch it. In the realm of cinematography, it is simply a pure masterwork.

Performance-wise, this ensemble cast is so remarkable, that each deserves Oscar-like recognition. Frances McDormand, who’s appeared in many of the Coens’ movies, and is married to director Joel, shines in her most winning performance to date. As a good bit of the movie is set in a dark atmosphere with despicable criminals, Marge represents the very down to earth and sweet natured person that is ideal defeater of such evil, which is so well illustrated in her confrontation with the killers in the end. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare make for some intriguing, if totally insane, lowlifes. Buscemi is a master of playing the crazed slimy weasel-like thug, which is ever so perfected in Carl Showalter. As for Peter Stormare, he creates what I think is still to this day one of the creepiest and truly frightening characters of all time, and with so little words too.

But as far as I’m concerned, the best performance of the film goes to William H. Macy, who is believable in every single aspect of this character. He makes Jerry into a simpleton right from the beginning, only to have his intelligence lowered as the complications of the plot progress. What makes this character so memorable is the fact that even though he is obviously weighed down by circumstances he cannot control, he attempts to find ways to make himself feel that he can still get away with murder. It’s a truly marvelous creation of such a complex person.

Fargo garnered plenty of Oscar attention back in 1996, all of it deservingly. Despite Frances McDormand taking home the gold for Best Actress, the film itself was unfortunate to lose to something called The English Patient, which is a film that could never outdo the sheer level of brilliance contained in the Coens’ masterpiece.

Ignited with pure originality in scene after scene, Fargo ranks right up there with the likes of Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights as one of the most surprising film experiences I’ve ever had. To those who have not yet seen it, you owe it to yourself to discover this unique American thriller.

Video ***1/2

I vaguely remember MGM’s first issuing of Fargo on DVD, other than it resembled much of the very first release issued by Polygram. What I can tell you is that the presentation on this Special Edition release is by far the best one I’ve seen yet. The anamorphic picture (a full screen version is also included) allows the stunning scenery to come to snowy life in a purely glorious form. The photography by Roger Deakins illumes the screen with memorable images that become even more memorable thanks to this superb presentation.

Audio ***

Fargo has never sounded better than this. The previous release only carried a 2.0 channel, but MGM has thankfully remastered the audio to a full out 5.1 track. Dialogue is heard with unbeatable clarity, and the striking music by composer Carter Burwell is indeed the high point of the listening area. The numerous scenes of sudden violence pay off well too, as I’ve never heard the sound of a woodchipper in such a sharp way. A most pleasant listen of a disc.

Features ****

This is one release that was in dire need of a makeover as far as the features were concerned. MGM has applied the Special Edition touch for this disc. Included is a commentary track with cinematographer Roger Deakins, a new documentary titled “Minnesota Nice”, a Charlie Rose Show segment with Joel and Ethan Coen and Frances McDormand, a trivia track, a behind the scenes photo gallery, and a trailer and TV spot.


Fargo is truly one of the most original films ever made, and its triumph can now be reflected in this superb Special Edition offering from MGM, which makes for one of the best re-issues of the year.