Blood Simple | Critical Review by Kim Newman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of Blood Simple.
This section contains 1,065 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Harry M. Geduld

Critical Review by Kim Newman

SOURCE: A review of Fargo, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 6, June, 1996, pp. 40-41.

Below, Newman provides a plot summary and favorable review of Fargo.

Minnesota. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, deeply in debt, goes to Fargo to meet Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, two criminals. Jerry gives them a car off his lot and arranges with them to kidnap his wife Jean. He plans to extort a million dollar ransom from his wealthy father-in-law Wade Gustafson, giving Carl and Gaear half of what he claims is only $80,000 dollars. Carl and Gaear snatch Jean but are stopped on the road near Brainerd by a policeman because the car still has dealer license plates. Gaear shoots the cop dead, then pursues and murders two passing tourists.

The heavily pregnant Brainerd police chief, Marge Gunderson, follows the trail of the killers, which takes her to Minneapolis-St Paul. Wade insists on delivering the ransom personally and is shot dead during a struggle by Carl, who, wounded and bleeding himself, discovers the size of the ransom and buries most of the money, intending to split only the original $80,000 with Gaear. Returning to their hideout, Carl finds Gaear has killed Jean out of hand. They get into an argument about the money, which winds up with Gaear taking an axe to Carl.

Jerry, having concealed Wade's body, is questioned by Marge, who thinks the killers' car might have been stolen from his lot. Jerry runs, convincing Marge of his involvement. Driving home, Marge spots the car by the hideout, and finds Gaear disposing of Jean and Carl in a wood-chipper. She shoots and then arrests the fleeing Gaear. Later, Jerry is arrested in a motel.

A quiet opening caption insists on the factual basis of Fargo, although it avoids prefacing the film with the most dispiriting rubric in the language, "based on a true story". We are told that something very like this impossible, Blood Simple-ish story did in fact happen in the Coen brothers' home state of Minnesota in 1987. The first melancholy shot of one car dragging another through a blinding white blizzard to a wonderful Carter Burwell arrangement of the hymn "The Lost Sheep' is followed by our introduction to the rubber-faced sad sack that William H. Macy makes of the protagonist Jerry Lundegaard. These images signal just how different this film will be. It's a departure, not only from the dreary parade of True Crime television movies released in the UK by Odyssey video, such as The Amy Fisher Story, but also from such comparable, aren't-folks-funny, talk show dramatizations as I Love You to Death.

We are given only telling hints of the circumstances that have brought the likeable but clearly doomed Jerry to Fargo but everything is made heart-breakingly clear by his brief telephone conversations with a bank official who needs clarification of a form Jerry has deliberately fudged to clear a loan. Later, we see his dreams die during a couple of crushing meetings with his overbearing, wealthy and subtly bullying father-in-law, to whom he has brought an investment but who is unwilling to underwrite Jerry's own involvement in the deal. "This would be a good thing for Jean and Scotty and me," Jerry claims, only to have the rich Wade snort, "Jean and Scotty never have to worry about money". Jerry is a tragic figure but also a clown (with a mouth like Joe E. Lewis').

Fargo is a further demonstration of Joel Coen's remarkable ability to mix comedy with horror. The film operates a certain double standard in its characterizations. Jean, for instance, is relegated to the status of a joke, with her squeaky voice and the slapstick inflicted on her (blindfolded by the kidnappers, she runs around like a headless chicken in the snow). She winds up casually murdered off-screen. Meanwhile, the one-scene sub-plot character of Marge Gunderson's nervy old flame, who has a disastrous reunion with the police chief in Minneapolis, segues from stooge to tragic figure when it is revealed that his story of recent widowerhood is all a fantasy.

Joel Coen has always—like his best known character Barton Fink—been open to charges of asking us to laugh at the disadvantaged provincials about whom he spins stories. He has spotlighted the redneck grunge of Texas in Blood Simple and the backwoods whininess of the locals in Raising Arizona. Here, on his home turf, he allows a great deal of regional humor, joking at the expense of 'ya ya' Scandiwegian locals who wander about with ear-flaps down through biting winds and acres of white snow. The waddling Marge, played by Joel's wife and longtime collaborator Frances McDormand, may be a maternal Columbo, whose ethnic and character quirks disguise a penetrating detective ability, but a great many other characters are amusingly dimwitted, peculiarly-accented and 'funny-looking'. These specimens range from the hooker who is cheerfully only able to remember of a client that "he wasn't circumcised" to the touchy kidnapper, Carl Showalter, who gets into a trivial and ultimately fatal argument about money just after he has squirreled away a never-to-be-reclaimed million dollars in cash.

As with Blood Simple, the Coens prove themselves masters of orchestrating cross-purposes plots, with half-thought-out criminal schemes going awry in ways that are surprising and yet obvious, ironic and yet horrifying. Whereas the earlier film presented a quartet of corrupt characters whose doublecrosses are understood only by the audience and the dead, Fargo offers McDormand (incidentally, the sole survivor of Blood Simple's plot) as a detective who through intuition, logic and luck does penetrate the backstory.

The real heart of the film is in Marge's understated relationship with her slobbish artist husband, Norm Gunderson, whose last-reel compromised triumph is that he sells a bird painting to be reproduced on the three-cent stamp. His tepid triumph is wearying enough to maybe make her look up that old flame, but the relationship still provides a warmth that gives her a strength none of the other characters—whose homes are seen to be stifling or freezing—can manage. Snuggling with her husband, and cheering him up by pointing out that people need small change stamps whenever the mail prices go up, Marge finally admits that she can't understand why the people whose trail she has followed have acted with such desperation. Here, with chilling but touching directness, Coen cuts his amusing but distanced conic approach and shows a heart that matches his undoubted skill.

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This section contains 1,065 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Harry M. Geduld
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