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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
people
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
people
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Arts and Entertainment
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
tv'Friends' cafe will be complete with Gunther and orange couch
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Java Developer - 1 year contract

    £350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

    Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

    £17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

    £450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

    Project Manager - Pensions

    £32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone