Life and Death with the Coen Brothers

November 17, 2007

Pink ConeflowersDeceased flower stalks and vines grace our Shangri-La in Tiny Town, giving our gardens a sort of macabre Charles Adamesque appearance and, as our eyes avert themselves from this frost-bitten, mottled blackness and brownness (which we still have to clean up to get the seeds for next year’s flowers), our thoughts turn lovingly to hibernation on the sofa and. . .movies, one of the few forms of entertainment in Tiny Town. Well, okay, there’s also Hockey Night in Canada.

Frances, Dorman in Fargo, a Coen Brothers MovieSince we first watched Raising Arizona and were attracted to its quirky nature, we’ve been hooked on Oscar-winning directors Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Notable Coen brothers’ productions include the underrated film noir 1996 Fargo and the wildly popular O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Actress Frances Dorman won an Academy Award for Best Actress in Fargo for her portrayal of pregnant Upper Midwest police chief Marge Gunderson. Fargo also won an Oscar for best screenplay, and Roger Ebert once called it “one of the best films I’ve ever seen.” Set in the frigid Upper Midwest (filmed in North Dakota and Minnesota during the winter), the movie opens with a disclaimer that “THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” The story is actually not true, but this ploy cleverly sets up a willing suspension of disbelief in the audience.

In the movie, Dormand’s character, Marge Gunderson, projects an image which is a combination of a startled deer caught in the headlights and plodding, dogged determination. After all, she’s seven months pregnant; first things first. The inimitability practical Gunderson tracks down the killers without breaking a sweat; she’s far smarter than they think. The murder mystery revolves around a sleazeball car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who has a comfy job provided by his father-in-law, who owns an Oldsmobile car dealership. But that’s not good enough. . .Jerry gets caught with his hand in the till at work. His solution? Have two thugs kidnap his wife and demand ransom money from his father-in-law, to clear up his financial difficulties. Great guy, huh?

Everything that can go wrong does, and Jerry’s grand plans to get a million dollars unravel in both startling and subtle ways which underscore the whimsical – and capricious – nature of life. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, the hapless and desperate Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), one of the thugs who kidnapped Jerry’s wife, stashes most of the money along a fence on a stretch of remote, snowy highway, laughably marking the location with an ice scraper. The Holy Grail (the money, of course) can never be relocated.

No Country for Old MenOne of the more promising movies this fall is another Coen brothers flick, set in another severe, minimalistic environment: the Tex-Mex border. Involving a heroin deal gone bad and based on Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name, this movie — No Country for Old Men – is also a goodie. McCarthy, a notable recluse, is often compared to William Faulkner and sometimes to Herman Melville. Stars of the movie include Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem. If you haven’t seen Bardem in Before Night Falls about Cuban dissident and and poet Reinaldo Arenas, add that to your list of movies to watch. And don’t forget Harrelson in the iconographic Natural Born Killers and in The People vs. Larry Flynt.

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Photo credit: Miramax Films

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