The Coen brothers (director/writer Joel and producer/writer Ethan) are on top form with this quirky, unconventional, comedy-tinged crime thriller set in snowy Northern Minnesota.
Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) is desperately in debt so hires amateur crooks Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife – “no rough stuff” – in order to extort some money from his wealthy bullying father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell).
Jerry means for no harm to come to Jean (Kristin Rudrud) but the plan goes awry when she puts up a fight and bites Gaear so hard he needs to search her house for “unguent”. Then innocent bystanders start getting killed as they botch their escape.
Enter heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, Joel Cohen’s real-life wife who won an Oscar for her performance) from up Brainerd way, the town with the huge statue of Paul Bunyan.
At first, it’s hard to get a fix on Marge with her flat “Ya, sure, how ya doin’?” accent and the way she dotes on her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), a wildlife painter.
On the way home from a gory crime scene, Marge stops to buy Norm nightcrawlers for fishing. He shows up at her office to feed her a burger and fries from Arby’s. Then you realise. It’s true love.
Resolutely conducting her first triple homicide investigation with an unhurried waddle and droll aplomb, Marge is smart, thorough and unflappable – whether she’s shaking up a hostile suspect or shaking off an old beau, Mike Yanagita (a memorable Steve Park), who refuses to see Marge’s marriage and protruding belly as an impediment to their dating.
Supposedly inspired by a true story, the film sees the Coens neatly subvert thriller clichés for their own surreal and philosophical ends, while retaining the genre’s old-fashioned virtues and screw-tightening tension.
While sweet-natured mirth is combined with deliciously twisted malice, and gory horror merges with offbeat humour, the whole is set against an extraordinary winter wonderland backdrop. The result is a modern masterpiece.
William H Macy
John Carroll Lynch