Snow Coens

A Coen brothers movie wouldn't be a Coen brothers movie if it didn't take a snide view of its characters, and the oddball filmmaking team's latest, Fargo, is no exception. The lads dearly love a protagonist they can humiliate, and the contempt they show for Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is vitriolic.

Jerry, manager of a Minneapolis car dealership, is in shady money trouble, and in his desperation hatches a crude, idiotic get-rich-quick plot. He arranges with a couple of creeps (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud) so that he can scam his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell) out of a big ransom--the lion's share of which he plans to keep.

The bungling of the two ne'er-do-wells leads to a triple murder in the little town of Brainerd, Minnesota--traditional hometown of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox--and soon Marge (Frances McDormand), the shrewd, perkily pregnant police chief, is on the case and circling ever closer to Jerry, who seems--even in the bleak arctic world captured so stunningly by cinematographer Roger Deakins--to be in quite a sweat.

Fargo is a crime thriller which is not, to use the phrase favored by conservatives, soft on crime. The criminals are dangerous yet pathetic losers, the terror and sufferings of the victims are fully acknowledged, and the police are competent and scrupulously honest professionals. Yet something tells me that Pat Robertson will not be inviting the Coens (director/co-writer Joel and producer/co-writer Ethan) onto The 700 Club anytime soon to chat up the film.

This movie, full of white people and white landscapes, is too austerely wholesome even for Pat--it takes on greed. The Coens have at last stopped shooting fish in barrels like overearnest, socially conscious Jewish playwrights (Barton Fink), Horatio Alger wanna-bes and cartoon tycoons (The Hudsucker Proxy), or petty stickup men (Raising Arizona), and turned their formidable powers of sophomoric mockery on the root of evil for all of the above--the love of money. It makes for their most mature film yet--and possibly their best.

Fargo is being characterized as bizarre black comedy, and indeed it does employ many techniques of the genre. The dialogue might have come from Martin Mull and Fred Willard's History of White People in America, and the actors deliver it in a parodic exaggeration of Northern inflections--"Yaaah, you betcha," they say over and over, and "Yer darn tootin'." Both Jerry and Marge seem like comic figures at first, but after a while we see that these are just distancing techniques and we're meant to take the characters seriously.

Jerry's ineptitude is comic, but that's all that's funny about him; he's as black-hearted a villain as you'll find in the movies--he's Willie Loman divided by Richard III. Actually, that's too literary a formula for so blandly convincing a portrait of evil--he's a true-life human monster: scary, hateful and pitiful.

The Coens intend Marge just as seriously as a hero. Her cheeriness is fully in her control--it's a tool she uses to disarm, and in no way does it mitigate her wily resourcefulness and courage. At the same time, her attitude is perfectly sincere and the Coens seem to offer it as a philosophical alternative to the cynicism and money-hungry misery of the pre-defeated crooks. Near the end she says, "It's a beautiful day," and while the desolation that Deakins shows us seems to contradict the assertion, we're inclined to believe her. Perhaps we have to send our Pollyannas at least as far north as Minnesota before we can find them credible.

In any case, Macy and McDormand superlatively lead the superlative cast, especially McDormand--this actress, though always interesting, in other films has usually seemed vaguely miscast. Here, her connection with the audience is immediate and beguiling. When movie actresses complain about the lack of strong film roles for women, this is probably the sort of thing for which they are asking.

Diabolique: Directed by Jeremiah Chechik; with Sharon Stone, Isabelle Adjani, Kathy Bates, Chazz Palminteri, Spalding Gray, Shirley Knight, Allen Garfield and Adam Hann-Byrd. RatedR.

What those same actresses probably are not asking for is the silliness which two of their number, Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani, are put through in Diabolique, a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic 1955 chiller, another film about a conspiracy against a spouse.

As the mistress and wife of a rotten private-school headmaster (Chazz Palminteri) who team up in a plot against him, Stone and Adjani undeniably look fabulous. They're magnificent columns of heaving, jiggly flesh, and they're both costumed with tongue in cheek--Stone in shiny, reptilian greens and blues (she wears a lizard-shaped lapel pin in one scene, in case we missed the point); Adjani's ex-nun in virgin-whore pale blues and grays. Palminteri, with his dead-fish eyes and lips, is well-cast, too.

But the direction of Jeremiah Chechik (Benny & Joon) is all gloss, no fright. Don Roos' script tries to give the material a feminist spin by emphasizing the sisterly (not to mention sapphic) aspect of the conspirators' relationship, and by making the detective poking into the case a woman (Kathy Bates)--and a mastectomy survivor at that.

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