No call to get snippy with Fargo

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

If I had one problem with Fargo (1996), the crime / thriller / comedy / drama movie written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, it was that it was over too soon.  Fargo creates a strange, mesmerizing world that’s set amid the white winter wastes of North Dakota and Minnesota and that rings with the music of the inhabitants’ whimsical speech patterns (“Yah, you betcha!”).  It’s a bleak and cruel world where a hapless shmuck with no aptitude for criminality (William H. Macy) tries his hand at criminality anyway and gets mercilessly punished for it, with bad luck and his own incompetence landing him in an ever-deepening morass of violence and bloodshed.  But it’s simultaneously a cozy and life-affirming world where the whole vicious mess is sorted out by a resourceful and heavily pregnant policewoman (Francis McDormand) whose most aggressive line is a schoolmarm-ish “You’ve no call to get snippy with me!”

 

I found Fargo’s world so captivating that I felt disappointed when after 98 minutes it ended – though admittedly it ended spectacularly, with Steve Buscemi being force-fed into a wood-chipping machine.

 

When it was announced a few years ago that author, screenwriter and producer Noah Hawley was masterminding a ten-episode, ten-hour TV version of Fargo, I should’ve been pleased at the prospect of getting six times the dose of Fargo-the-movie.  But I felt wary.  For one thing, I thought, surely even the best TV programme-maker in the world would struggle to capture the peculiar spirit of a Coen Brothers movie.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

And I had mixed feelings when I watched the first episodes of the first season of Fargo in 2014.  It was enjoyable, yes, but I was dissatisfied at how it took key character-types from the movie – the bungling loser becoming a criminal (Martin Freeman instead of Macy), the shrewd but gentle-natured police-lady (Allison Tolman instead of McDormand) – and simply tweaked their situations a bit.  Hence, Freeman goes through the same vortex of panic and misery that Macy goes through, but unlike his movie counterpart he apparently emerges from it stronger and richer; while Tolman isn’t pregnant, but the wife of one of her police colleagues is.  The show wasn’t a carbon-copy of the original, then, but it felt like a considerable imitation.

 

However, what makes a difference in season one of Fargo, from the off, is Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as Lorne Malvo.  A fearsome hitman, Malvo doesn’t just kill folk.  He also enjoys manipulating and corrupting people whom he comes across, as he does early on with Lester Nygaard, Freeman’s character.  It’s no surprise when at one point he mentions himself being in the Garden of Eden.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

In fact, after a few episodes Fargo season one seemed to escape from the shadow of its cinematic predecessor.  It became unafraid to take risks and do its own thing and generally grew more confident and rewarding.  I particularly liked how in episode 8 it suddenly hopped forward a year or so from its original setting of 2006 and the characters and their circumstances were suddenly transformed – Tolman’s character, Molly, becoming a wife and expectant mother, Lester Nygaard ceasing to be a sniveling weasel and morphing into a successful salesman who seems to have it made.  Though inevitably, fate intervenes when Nygaard pops off to a Las Vegas awards ceremony to pick up a prize and inadvertently crosses paths with Malvo again.

 

Fargo season one became pretty good, then, but it was never perfect.  As the cringing Nygaard, Freeman met the bill physically but faltered somewhat with the Minnesota accent.  Also, the script’s fondness for introducing character duos – not only a pair of other hitmen called Mr Wrench and Mr Numbers, but also a pair of bumbling FBI agents called Agent Pepper and Agent Budge – made me wonder what other duos might appear before the show was over.  Maybe Mr Kidd and Mr Wint from Diamonds are Forever (1971)?

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Season one was boosted by the presence of Keith Carradine in the role of Lou, Molly’s dad and a former policeman.  In one scene, he describes a violent case he experienced in 1979 where there were dead bodies “one after another… probably if you stacked ’em high, you could’ve climbed to the second floor.”  Fargo season two, shown in 2015, tells the story of that case with Patrick Wilson playing a younger version of Lou.  The reason for the multitude of corpses is that 1979 sees gang warfare break out in North Dakota, triggered when the Kansas City syndicate decides to muscle in on a gangster family who’ve been running Fargo city’s underworld for generations.  In a typical twist, these gangsters aren’t Italian in origin but German.  They’re the Gerhardts, fond of eating schnitzel and reminiscing about their forefathers’ exploits on the losing side in World War I.

 

The Gerhardts contain wise heads (Jean Smart, Angus Sampson) and less wise heads (Jeffrey Donovan, Kieran Culkan), though predictably it’s the less wise heads who have the biggest influence on events and bullets are soon flying.  Complicating the situation is a giddy beautician called Peggy, played by Kirsten Dunst – this season’s variation on the hapless-schmuck-getting-mired-in-criminality-and-chaos.  She accidentally smashes her car into a key member of the Gerhardt family one night and instead of driving to the nearest hospital drives home with his bloodied body still sprawled across the bonnet.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

While the first season poked fun at the American Dream, thanks to Lester Nygaard going from zero to hero in his profession after he’s murdered one person and been an accomplice in the murder of a couple of others, season two is explicit in its satirical target.  It’s set at the dawn of the Reagan era, when big corporate businesses got carte blanche to stomp the life out of their smaller competitors, something symbolized by the unequal battle between the Kansas City syndicate and Fargo’s Gerhardts.  Underlining the satire is an appearance in episode 5 by the soon-to-be president Ronald Reagan (played by Bruce Campbell – yay!) who’s campaigning in the neighbourhood.  Lou, who’s a Vietnam veteran, is assigned to Reagan’s security detail and the pair of them start chatting and swapping war memories, though Lou soon realizes that his befuddled charge is talking about the war movies he made as an actor.

 

While the ruthless, corporate way the world is heading sounds the death-knell for the Gerhardts, Fargo season two is not without optimism.  Hope for the future is embodied in Lou’s family unit – his ailing but loving wife (Cristin Milioti), his kindly father-in-law (Ted Danson) and his little daughter, whom we know will grow up to be the heroine of season one.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Fargo’s second season is splendid television – as good as Hannibal (2013-15), True Detective (2014-15) or anything else I’ve seen in recent years.  It’s not, I should say, a straightforward gangster thriller because it’s peppered with strange Coen-esque moments.  Along the way we’re treated to black-and-white clips from fictional Ronald Reagan movies and – in a nod to that late-1970s blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – a giant UFO that appears at crucial moments in the plot.  If you love the whacked-out whimsy of the Coen-verse, as I do, you’ll find the visitations of this UFO delightful.  If you don’t, you may feel like putting your foot through your TV set.

 

Season three of Fargo aired earlier this year and I’ve just finished watching a box-set of it.  Obviously, it had a lot to live up to.  Noah Hawley bravely doesn’t try to emulate the slap-bang action of the previous season and dials things down – even when mass bloodshed occurs in season three, it largely does so offscreen.  The result is a lower-key variation on the Fargo formula, with more bleakness and ambiguity and a suggestion that even the very best characters may not be living happily ever after.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Set in 2010, the third season starts with two business partners, Emmit (Ewan McGregor, whose Minnesota accent is more convincing than Martin Freeman’s) and Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), discovering that the contract they signed with a shady company that lent them money and bailed them out during the economic crisis two years earlier has some troubling small-print.  One day, an emissary from the shady company called V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) turns up out of the blue and informs them that he’s their new partner.  He’ll be making changes to their operations and expanding them into some new and unorthodox areas.

 

Emmit also has to deal with his brother Ray, who’s played too by McGregor.  Jacob-and-Esau-style, Ray blames Emmit for cheating him out of his birthright (a collection of valuable stamps) and dooming him to a deadbeat existence as a parole officer.   Ray is urged on in this sibling quarrel by his girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ex-felon who’s actually one of his parolees.  When the embittered Ray blackmails another of his parolees into burgling Emmit’s house for him, we enter that now-familiar Fargo territory where Things Start to Go Wrong.

 

There are some hilarious early scenes where Emmit and Sy watch helplessly while their company is taken over by the mysterious but clearly criminal Varga – whom Thewlis basically plays as the devil, though a devil with the manner of a world-weary, disheveled schoolmaster who’s constantly having to explain things in very simple terms to very stupid schoolchildren.  But the humour rapidly sours.  Although they’re a pair of self-satisfied and not-very-bright shysters, neither Emmit nor Sy are that bad and neither of them deserve the tribulations that are soon visited upon them, Job-like.  Sy, a Coen-esque character with the demeanor (and effectiveness) of an angry chihuahua, is touchingly loyal to Emmit and you feel quite upset at his eventual fate.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Similar ambiguity exists elsewhere.  Ray is an oaf whose petulant actions result in misery and death, but he at least shows genuine love for Nikki.  Meanwhile, Nikki is capable of resorting to murder to have her way, but when Varga gets forcefully involved in the Ray-Emmit feud and she declares war against him – she even enlists the help of the hitman Mr Wrench from season one – we find ourselves cheering her on.

 

Representing the forces of goodness this time is Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Burgle.  Compared with Alison Tolman and Patrick Wilson in the previous seasons, she has a smaller support base – a 13-year-old son and a policewoman buddy (Olivia Sandoval) and that’s about it.  Her husband has left her and her stepfather is dead before the end of episode one.  And what she’s up against is frightening.  While the Kansas City syndicate in season two represented big business, Thewlis’s Varga, a man apparently without identity or history but able to commandeer computers and the Internet to do whatever he wants, is symbolic of the vast, practically-omnipotent multinationals that exist today and are richer and more powerful than most countries.

 

Hawley pushes the envelope with season three.  One episode contains animated segments involving a wandering robot – Gloria discovers that her late stepfather once wrote science-fiction stories under another name, belatedly reads one of his novels and visualises its plot in cartoon form.  At other points, the show approaches the supernatural weirdness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) with Ray Wise (who was in Twin Peaks) turning up as a character who might be God to David Thewlis’s devil.  In this morally-unstable universe, however, God’s appearances are less frequent and consistent than those of his adversary.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

The early episodes of Fargo season three suffer from pacing problems, when more could be happening and happening more quickly.  But it does build to a suspenseful climax and the scene where Gloria and Varga finally come face to face is quietly brilliant.  It’s not as great as season two, but it’s great in parts.

 

And near the end of the final episode, after so many hours of Fargo-related TV, when Jeff Russo’s melancholic but majestic theme music swirled up on the soundtrack, do you know what?  I thought, shit.  It’s still over too soon.

 

Great unappreciated films: U-Turn

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

It’s hard to believe today, but there was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Oliver Stone seemed to bestride American cinema like King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building.  Like it or not – and many critics and commentators did not, both conservative ones who didn’t approve of his shit-stirring, anti-establishment politics and sophisticated liberal ones who found his approach loud, crude and simplistic – he was everywhere.  He’d clobber you with one big sensationalist movie tackling some unsavoury aspect of America’s present or recent past.  And then, when you managed to withstand that, he’d pop up again and clobber you with another one.

 

US involvement in Central America?  Salvador (1986).  Vietnam?  Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (1993).  The swinging sixties?  The Doors (1991).  Kennedy’s assassination?  JFK (1991).  The coarsening of the American news media?  Natural Born Killers (1994).  Watergate?  Nixon (1995).  Wall Street?  Er, Wall Street (1987).  For a while, it was almost like an episode of modern American history hadn’t properly happened until old Oliver had made a movie about it.

 

But times change.  Stone has continued making films into the 21st century, like Alexander (2004), World Trade Centre (2006), W. (2008) and Snowden (2016).  The reviews have been lukewarm, however, and the consensus seems to be that if he hasn’t entirely lost it, he certainly doesn’t have what he had 25 years ago.

 

I find this rather sad because, with a few exceptions, I enjoyed the movies Stone made in his heyday.  They might have been pompous and in-your-face but they were rarely dull.  And I liked the fact that Stone’s movies were both popular and questioning of the status quo, at a time when the Reagan-Bush administrations in Washington DC would doubtless have preferred Hollywood to keep churning out Rocky and Rambo films.

 

And though it was fashionable to deride Stone as a big, earnest movie mogul with no sense of humour, I found many of his films very funny.  During the likes of Salvador and The Doors and even the bloodbath that was Natural Born Killers, there were moments when I laughed out loud.  I couldn’t understand why when it came to Stone many critics didn’t get the joke.

 

For me, though, the Oliver Stone movie that ranks highest on the laugh-o-meter is one of his most neglected and forgotten ones – I suspect the reason why it’s neglected and forgotten is because it’s a very rare beast, a non-political Stone movie.  1997’s U-Turn is a crime thriller / black comedy based on a novel called Stray Dogs by John Ridley, who also wrote the script.  (In 2014, Ridley would win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave).  It’s about a drifter called Bobby (Sean Penn) fleeing from the mafia, to whom he owes money, whose car breaks down and leaves him stranded in a hick town called Superior in the middle of the Arizona Desert.

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Whilst waiting impatiently for his car to be fixed so he can get out of town again – his pursuers will be turning up soon and, also, the place and its inhabitants are driving him crazy – Bobby gets caught in a web of intrigue involving crooked local bigshot Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte), Jake’s young, gorgeous and predictably duplicitous wife Grace (Jennifer Lopez) and the sullen and also-crooked town sheriff Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe).  As an interloper, Bobby is soon enlisted to murder one of the parties concerned.  And then that party enlists him to murder someone else…

 

The Nolte-Lopez-Boothe part of the plot gives U-Turn a twisty and poisonous crime noir  vibe – Stone described the scenario as a ‘scorpions-in-a-bucket’ one where every character is a predator who won’t stop stinging until he / she’s satisfied everyone else is dead.  But the film is also Kafka-esque in an amusing way.  Bobby loathes the hot, sweaty backwater he’s become stuck in.  “Is everyone in this town on drugs?” he rants at one point.  Yet through sheer bad luck his every effort to escape from Superior is thwarted and before long you’re wondering if he’ll ever escape from it.  Which is hellish for him but blackly funny for us, the audience.

 

It doesn’t help that Bobby has entrusted his broken-down car to the care of a local mechanic called Darrell, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who’s nearly unrecognisable in hideous fake teeth, taped-together glasses and a patina of engine grime.  His approach to car repair is as delicate as ISIS’s approach to historical conservation and the scenes where Bobby visits Darrell’s garage to find his car dismantled into ever-smaller pieces are comedy gold.  “Darrell,” laments Bobby, “40,000 people die every day.  How come you’re not one of ’em?”

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Cranking Bobby’s blood-pressure level even higher are the occasional appearances of a blind half-Indian vagrant who pushes a shopping trolley containing a dead dog.  Played by Jon Voight, this blind vagrant has apparently made it his mission to wind Bobby up, uttering statements both gnomic and annoying: for example, “Your lies are old.  But you tell ’em pretty good.”

 

Can things get any worse for Bobby?  Yes, they can.  For he also has to endure the company of a delinquent called Toby N. Tucker, played by Joaquin Phoenix – “People round here call me TNT.  You know why?”  “Because they’re not very imaginative?” “Cause I’m just like dynamite, boy, and when I go off somebody gets hurt!” – and his girlfriend Jenny, played by Claire Danes.  Between them, TNT and Jenny don’t have two braincells to rub together.  Jenny keeps trying in her artless way to flirt with Bobby, who doesn’t want to touch her with a bargepole; and TNT keeps taking umbrage and threatening Bobby with violence.  The scenes with Penn, Phoenix and Danes are even funnier than the scenes with Penn and Thornton.  At one point in a diner, while Patsy Cline sings from the jukebox, Jenny muses: “I just love her.  I wonder how she don’t put out no more new records.”  To which a disgruntled Bobby retorts: “Because she’s dead.”  “Oh, that’s sad.  Don’t that make you sad?”  “I’ve had time to get over it.”

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Later, there’s a hilarious and cathartic moment when TNT ambushes Bobby and destroys his last chance to get out of town – he snatches away the bus ticket Bobby has just bought with his last remaining money and eats it in front of him.  Bobby finally flips and beats the shit out him.

 

I can’t finish this entry without singing the praises of Jennifer Lopez.  As Grace, the movie’s supercharged femme fatale, she’s steamier than the surrounding Arizona landscapes and she possesses a gaze sizzling enough to fry a full-English breakfast in three minutes.  She was equally splendid in another crime thriller made the following year, the Steven Soderbergh-directed Out of Sight.  In fact, I feel it was a blow for the film world that soon after she reinvented herself as J-Lo and concentrated more on singing.  (To be honest, that was also a blow for the music world.)

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

U-Turn isn’t perfect.  At times, Stone’s frenetic camera-angles, point-of-view shots, editing and use of different film stocks – a hangover of the pyrotechnics he indulged in with Natural Born Killers – can be distracting.  But if you’re curious to see one of 1990s cinema’s big cheeses let his hair down and slum it a bit, if you enjoy cynical, amoral thrillers where each new character is even scummier than the last, if your mouth waters at the prospect of watching character actors like Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix and Jon Voight chew up the scenery, and if you fancy discovering the greatness of Jennifer Lopez before she devoted herself to a career of causing earache, then U-Turn is for you.

 

And as I say, parts of it are as funny as hell.