Montreal Film Journal


It all begins with Jerry Lundegaard, a down on his luck car salesman who figures that the only way to get some of the dough of his rich father-in-law is to have his own wife kidnapped by some lowlifes with whom he'll then split the ransom. The problem is that Jerry ain't such a smart guy, his plan is filled with holes and nobody behaves the way they're supposed to, especially not the kidnappers. Before long corpses are piling up and Jerry's got a suspicious policewoman after his ass, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The film is extremely smart and inventive: it's one damn twist after another. Though the subject is gruesome, the film finds humor in its characters and situations. It all takes place in the snowy landscapes of Minnesota and North Dakota, where the people aren't used to crime and police investigations. It's not that they're dumb, they're more, like, "folksy", and they have this hilariously cheerful accent. Jerry is played by William H. Macy, who turns a laughable character into a still funny but endearingly pathetic character. We understand Jerry's struggle to do something well just once, even though it's hardly legal. The kidnappers are interpreted by Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi. Stormare is all quiet and unpredictable, while Buscemi is the nervous and talkative type. They're really funny together, their brutality only matching their stupidity. But the film's most striking performance is Frances McDormand's. Her pregnant police chief might be kinda dorky, but you see that she's far from being stupid. She even has a cruder side. McDormand's character is kind of like a cross between Martha Stewart and Judge Judy. She pulls this odd performance with humor and no-nonsense attitude. She's not actually in a lot of scenes, but she's the heart of the picture.

Of course, beside being gifted writers, the Coen brothers are also brilliant directors. The film is visually stunning from start to end. It's packed with inventive camerawork, gorgeous shots and brilliantly crafted sequences. They have a way of showing things in an unusual, memorable way. Just think of that big goofy statue of Paul Bunyan, which becomes an eerie sight in the film. You have to admire the way the Coen create a memorable universe for each of their films. The locations aren't generally that unusual, but they're shot in a way that makes them look out of this world. This might be the most stunning depiction of winter I've seen in a movie; it's like you can feel the cold. The score adds to that feel of Scandinavian tragedy (whatever that means). This is truly a brilliant film, the kind you don't see often. Intelligent, raw, funny, daring and unique, pure cinematic delight from start to end.