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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
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.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £23,000

    £13500 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning, Bolton base...

    Recruitment Genius: Client Account Executive

    £23000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Account Executive is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing Executive

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Full Time position available now at a growing...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future