How not to solve executive stress

FILM

Hannah Arendt's sombrely disgusted phrase "the banality of evil" might have been minted to describe the chief villain of Joel and Ethan Coen's new murder story Fargo (18). Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) is a twitchy, apologetic little bureaucrat with the face of a startled beagle and a soul full of maggots. He flogs overpriced cars for his rich father-in-law and insists on being called an Executive Sales Manager; his unthinking reverence for that sad word "executive" is just one of the cruelly observed details that render him pitiful. Somehow or other, Jerry has worked himself so deeply into debt that he has come up with the solution of hiring a couple of psychotic thugs (Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so that they can then divide up the ransom money from her dad. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

As anyone but Jerry could have predicted, the plan goes screeching off the rails, leaving a trail of worm-meat in its wake. But his scheme also founders for a wholly unpredictable reason - it runs headlong into Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who at first seems so dopily laconic that it's easy to miss her shrewd intelligence and fierce good sense. Peering into a wrecked car to examine the goons' first victim, she mutters, "Uh, I just, I think I'm gonna barf." Not from squeamishness, though: she's expecting a happy event. By the end of the film, this unexcitable, heavily pregnant public servant has grown into one of the great heroines of contemporary cinema - a beguiling innocent, a representative of the blandness of good.

Set in the snowlands of Minnesota and North Dakota, and shot by the accomplished British cinematographer Roger Deakins, much of Fargo is literally dazzling. The screen is filled with vast, monotonous tracts of white, relieved only by a solitary car or some goofy roadside attraction like a statue of Paul Bunyan toting, not insignificantly, an axe. When the action switches to interiors, they're so doggedly unremarkable as to seem eerie; Marge's home patch of Brainerd, one suspects, must be the sister town of Twin Peaks.

As in their earlier films, of which Blood Simple offers the clearest antecedents for Fargo, this glum comedy-thriller is crammed with matter quite independent of its plot. For outsiders, particularly, there's a geographical and ethnological fascination in seeing these rarely filmed parts of the States, where Marge and her pals keep out the cold by constant feeding on Midwestern stodge - a good friend who lived in the region for some years tells me that such foodstuffs are known to the cynical as "Lutheran binder" - and preserve the memory of their Scandinavian forebears in their sing-song speech patterns and Nordic pronunciations. Roughly half the sentences spoken in Fargo include the word "yah" meaning "yeah" or "yes"; in one scene, in which Marge interrogates a couple of whores, that colloquial affirmative yo-yos or yah-yahs back and forth so rapidly it sounds as if they're limbering up for an a cappella number.

Since the Coen brothers are a pair of bright Minnesota boys who moved out and made good, it might appear as if they were simply going back to lord it over the place they've escaped, with sneers frozen across their faces and stalactites of ice lodged in their hearts. ("Coldness" has become such a routine cry against them that the wind-chill factor in Fargo could be read as a joke on critics.) Not all of the film abstains from poking fun at the rubes: when the Coens go out of their way to notice the over-eager simper of a waitress, or the ramblings of an elderly witness, or the flickering light cast by ubiquitous television screens over expressionless features, you can hear the tittering of the over-educated.

But Marge rescues the film. By throwing such weight on her happy marriage to the quietly un-normal Norm (John Carroll Lynch), who paints wildfowl for a living, the Coens transcend their own habitual tricksiness so completely that they can even rise to an uplifting ending, and a plain-spoken moral: "There's more to life than a little money, you know." Frances McDormand, aka Mrs Joel Coen, plays her with beautifully unfussy subtlety. And Steve Buscemi, who has now taken over from James Woods as the actor most likely to be cast as a rat-faced sleazeball, is a disreputable joy: in a film that often provokes knowing chuckles, he gets the big laughs, especially when he staggers in from the snow, blood gushing from the remains of his jaw, and slurs, "You should see zhe uzher guy!"

By sustaining its narrative tension through almost suicidally frequent scenes of apparent irrelevancy - Buscemi, facial wounds spouting, angrily chewing out a parking attendant; Marge fending off the clumsy attentions of an old high-school acquaintance - Fargo manages to be both immensely entertaining and something more uncomfortable than penny-plain entertainment. It's one of the few recent films that flirts with the comedy of violence without losing a grip on its humanity. Though FR Leavis would have hated it, it's decidedly For Life. Or, in the minimalist sociolect of downtown Brainerd: Real good, now, yah?

Some films are almost impossible to review without giving away the ending; From Dusk Till Dawn (18), directed by Robert Rodriguez from a script Quentin Tarantino had stuffed at the back of his sock drawer, is almost impossible to review without giving away the middle, so readers who have somehow avoided hearing about its big gimmick should skip their eyes lightly across the following until they see the name "Artaud". OK, here's the big gimmick: it starts out as a fairly realistic gangsters-and-hostages movie, then abruptly switches track after about half its running time and becomes a vampire movie. Not an artsy vampire movie, but a movie in which a thousand fanged and slavering gribleys get shot, staked, decapitated, disembowelled, crushed, burnt, melted and ripped apart, so that the air is filled with entrails, nasty green body fluids and harsh language.

It is, in a word, preposterous. While wholly innocent of any redeeming content, however, it does have the odd point. In the first half, set in Rodriguez's home state of Texas, the ghastly bank-robbing Gecko brothers, Seth (George Clooney, the sex god from ER) and Richard (Tarantino, a bespectacled sex fiend), hijack the mobile home belonging to a freshly lapsed priest, Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), and his children (Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu) and force the family to drive them across the Mexican border to freedom. In the second, they fetch up at a godforsaken truckers' bar called the Titty Twister, where they watch a rather sexy dance by one Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) whose features suddenly melt into something from Bram Stoker's Dracula. All hell, or a fair slice of it, breaks loose.

It's probably quixotic to try to proffer discriminating judgements about a movie which cries out for a one-word response, be that word "Cool!", "Yuk!" or "Puerile". But Rodriguez has enough kinetic flair to make it seem a pity that he's content to apply it to manufacturing gleeful trash.

While best known for his theatre work, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) made a substantial contribution to the cinema: as an actor in more than 20 films, including Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc; as a screenwriter (Dulac's La Coquille et le Clergyman); even as a critic - he reviewed the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business (loved it) for La Nouvelle Revue Francaise. None of these facts is so much as mentioned in Gerard Mordillat's perversely polite biopic My Life and Times With Antonin Autaud (no cert), an adaptation of Jacques Prevel's memoir of the writer's last years, which pulls off the feat of making one of the unmissable visionaries of the century seem like a sorry old flake.

As Artaud, Sami Frey is dignified and melancholic, but far too cute - closer, despite the actor's years, to the glamorous Man Ray portrait of 1926 than to that frightening, toothless, electroshock-shattered face that glares out of the late photographs. It's dull if you happen to know anything about the man, and largely baffling if you don't.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.

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