Bordering on the vacant

Fargo, Joel Coen: The Coens' 'Fargo' disregards thriller conventions an d exhibits the brothers' sophistication. So why can't they empathise with their human creations?

Fargo is the new film from the indefatigable Ethan and Joel Coen, and a typically sophisticated piece of work. The thing is, though, that there's a difference between being sophisticated and being advanced. The Coen brothers are very knowing, but what is it that they know?

Fargo is less drenched in movie references than some previous Coen films, and the bleak landscape of North Dakota and Minnesota does get a look in. The Coens make a feature of the featurelessness of winter. Snow blurs the horizon. Occasionally the sun casts long shadows over a parking lot - that's as close as they get to a lyrical moment. A statue of Paul Bunyan, with checked shirt and upheld axe, stands outside his home town of Brainerd. He could be a bogey-man as easily as an inspirational figure.

In an opening title, the brothers claim to be telling a true story: "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." This may simply be a bluff - introducing the published screenplay, Ethan Coen writes "The story that follows... pretends to be true" - but even if it isn't, what we have here is hardly documentary. We are given, for instance, no precise details of the financial crisis that leads Jerry (William H Macy), a Minneapolis car dealer, to arrange for his wife to be kidnapped, so that his mean old father-in-law will pay up. Loan shark, gambling debt, organised crime, drug habit, blackmail - the Coens give an audience few clues beyond alluding to a scam involving car financing and serial numbers. Except of course that we know we're in a genre where a criminal scheme is a given.

Jerry can't close a deal without sweating blood for a few bucks, can't communicate with his son Scotty, either with love or authority, can't tell the truth but can't lie with any talent either. It goes without saying that he can't organise a criminal conspiracy. The actor lends the character his doggy eyes and pale red hair: the director decks him out in overshoes and parkas so that he always looks swaddled and ridiculous.

The Coens have a distinctly ungenerous conception of human nature - the objection being not that they're misanthropic, but that they're lazy in making their case. As his pitiful plan falls apart, Jerry expresses impotent rage by messing up his desk, or beating at his car's windscreen with the ice scraper. Meanwhile his kidnapped wife, trying to escape while bound and blindfolded, stumbling across a frozen yard like so much doomed poultry, is viewed with an unsavoury mixture of pathos and contempt. Black comedy takes more trouble than this. This is grey comedy, however dark it gets.

In effect, the Coens have written an action film that disregards the basic principle of the genre: that character is expressed in action. The characters in Fargo are unchanged by crisis and confrontation. This may be a daring authorial double bluff, or just a sign of the brothers' tendency towards self-congratulation of a bleak sort. Their assessments of their characters are not tested but merely confirmed by the workings of plot.

The rules of storytelling demand that Jerry be changed by the realisation that he may have deprived Scotty of a mother by his scheming. When they withhold any such scene, the Coens deprive us of cheap feeling, and in the context of an American culture where everybody is constantly having revelations about themselves, perhaps they should be congratulated. But then why bother with the father-son set-up at all?

The Coens were brought up in suburban Minneapolis and make much of their knowledge of Minnesota and its inhabitants. What we get in practice is a number of variations on a theme of benign Scandinavian idiocy, as if the state were largely populated by relatives of Rose from Golden Girls. Women in particular nod and beam, giving their vapid chat an unvarying upward intonation. Two hookers, asked to describe the men they were with, can only come up with the information that one was "funny looking" - no further details - while the other was like the Marlboro cowboy. Or was it that he smoked Marlboros? Two men talking in the street angle their heads inside their parka hoods to keep as much facial area as possible out of the cold. They look like awkward birds with bad posture. Scotty may have heavy metal band posters on his wall like every other 12- year-old in America, but he also has a poster for the Accordion King. The door of his room closes to reveal it with the timing of a smug little joke.

Even the film's heroine, Marge, the pregnant police chief, is borderline vacant, with her textbook police work and her eyes held wide open. Marge has a moment of nausea at a crime scene early in the film, but it's only morning sickness, and seconds later she's hungry again. Frances McDormand, who plays Marge, is married to Joel (the director), but no-one could accuse her of coasting. Her acting is the main reason for seeing the film. Without ever disclosing an intelligence beyond what the screenwriters indicate, she makes Marge warm even when she's a comic figure. This is no small thing, seeing that she has been directed, for instance, to mouth "thank you" to the waitress for her Coke, even though she is just being told by a friend, for the first time, about his wife's leukaemia.

There are a few scenes of Marge's that suggest a more interesting film than Fargo: scenes that offer contrasting versions of blankness. At one point she interviews Shep Proudfoot, a native American whose stereotypical inexpressiveness is compounded by his involvement in a crime. Shep says virtually nothing, yet it is possible to see that this dumb easy-going woman - or this woman whose culture requires a fair facsimile of dumbness from its women - has put enormous pressure on him.

Later Marge meets up with Mike Yanagita, a Japanese-American who is a friend from way back. Our culture chooses to see Japanese faces as emotionally constrained, but Mike expresses a turmoil of feelings, grief, loneliness, desire, in a bewilderingly short space of time. As Marge deals with him and his demands, both legitimate and out of line (he seems on the brink of making a pass), we have a sense of an apparently unsophisticated person - with her "Ya, you betcha" and her "Jeez" - who can handle most situations. For a moment, the Coens seems to be taking Minnesota seriously. It's typical of their own blankness, though, their preference for safe distance from human involvement, that Mike should turn out to be deranged, so that the joke is on Marge after all.

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