Fargo’s an odd film. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Basically, it’s half of two films stapled together.
The first two thirds is foot perfect, flawless story telling. Whose story is it? William H Macy’s. What does he want? To become a man, to give his life direction, to escape. But most immediately; the money. And what’s stopping him? Everything! His wife, the in-laws, the snow, lady luck, every single thing he does to solve his problems, they all come back to bite him. But principally, himself. It’s brilliant.
But then, just after the hour mark, he’s about to take the money to the kidnappers. But his father-in-law grabs the case and he goes instead. And for the final third of the film, we follow the money á la The Yellow Rolls-Royce, as it passes from hand to hand. From the father-in-law, to the nice thug, the real thug and finally the police.
Which should have been really annoying. But the film gets away with it because the secondary characters are so well drawn and so fantastically acted that you’re swept along.
So what’s the problem? So what if it breaks the laws of drama, if we’re all agreed that the film works?
Well the problem is, it convinced the Coen brothers that they didn’t have to worry about conventionally structuring their scripts with anything as burdensome as a beginning, middle and end. So everything they’ve made since has been pants.
Fargo (’96) was followed by The Big Lebowski (’98), which is a series of wonderful scenes, but just stops. It has no ending – try asking any of its fans what happens at the end, and see how long they take to remember.
After which, we’ve had a series of increasingly forgettable films with no end of secondary characters, but stories which have just become thinner and thinner. O Brother Where are Thou? (’00), Intolerable Cruelty (’03), the Ladykillers (’04), Burn After Reading (’08) and True Grit (’10).
The honourable exception, No Country For Old Men (’07), was, significantly, based on someone else’s story.
So turning Fargo into a TV series could have gone either way. Half way through the pilot episode, it looked as if it might have bitten off more than it could chew. As yet another body was added to the pile in what was a surprisingly gory opener. But they managed to tie up the many loose ends with impressive confidence by its close.
Happily, the problems that bedevil their feature films are assets in a TV series. Those brilliantly drawn secondary characters that they get distracted by will have time to develop here. And forever postponing an ending is what all television series are based on. And impressively, they’ve managed to translate that very distinctive mood they so often succeed in evoking, at once threateningly eerie yet appealingly quirky.
And then of course there’s Billy Bob Thornton. As, what? A sort of modern day and marvellously mischievous reverse image Jiminy Cricket. Prowling the town, quietly encouraging everyone he meets to follow their worst instincts.
It’s on on Sundays on Channel 4. You can see the Fargo trailer here.
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