Fargo: Remastered (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits The Coen's masterpiece from a local perspective...
Pleasant, but downtrodden car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) hires a couple of reject criminals, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), and ransom her off to her wealthy, gruff, disapproving father, Wade (Harve Presnell). Jerry will then collect part of the ransom for himself. When complications arise and innocent bystanders are murdered, a small down cop, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), begins piecing together the details of Jerry’s plan and closes in on Carl and Gaear.
The first time I saw Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo, I was living in southern Arizona. The quirky characters and frozen environments of the film were absolutely alien to me. I assumed the Midwestern accents were being exaggerated and the barren landscapes were being amplified for effect. After all, I’d seen the Coen’s version of Arizona in Raising Arizona – a film that insisted that residents in the region spoke with thick Southern accents (they don’t). Years later, I moved to the state the bulk of Fargo takes place in (Minnesota, not North Dakota) and realized that the Coen’s brilliance was not in exaggerating the milieu of the great white north, but in recreating its essence on film. It turns out that there is little exaggeration, outside of the ad campaign’s claim that Fargo was based on a true story. The people in the region, specifically the area north of Minneapolis/St. Paul, really do talk like Marge Gunderson and Jerry Lundegaard (as a matter of fact, the guy that sold me my last car was a dead ringer for William H. Macy), though they will argue tooth & nail that they do not sound like ‘that’ – in the very accent they claim not to have, amusingly enough.
Fargo captures the isolation of an oppressive Minnesota winter as well as the truth beneath the ‘you betcha’ smiles – the people that survive it year in and year out are incredibly passive-aggressive. Minnesota Nice isn’t so much a lie as it is a fib. It’s like an unspoken agreement: if you’re going to live in the rural areas of the state, you’re also going to sign a contract that was scrawled generations ago by the Scandinavians that were willing to colonize this godforsaken ice ball. Nobody really wants to put on a false face, but you might as well establish the veneer of pleasantry if you’re going to live somewhere that the other homesteaders decided was too hellish to set up shop. Having grown up in the Twin Cities suburbs, the Coens clearly understood the contract as well as its fallacy and saw the potential in juxtaposing the bleak landscapes and polite faces with a brutal noir tale. Given Fargo’s long-term popularity, I’m surprised that ‘Midwestern Gothic’ never really caught on and find it kind of ironic that Scandinavian/Nordic Noir is spreading stateside, following the popularity of books like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series and Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters.
Having lived among the natives for more than a decade, I also understand that Fargo’s humour is painted in subtle strokes as well as broad ones. The more vulgar dark comedy that surrounds Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare’s characters represents an outsider’s sense of humour. Their experiences with the maddening façade of Minnesota Nice and the locals’ reactions to their vulgarity are the surface-level comedy. Beneath that is the even darker comedy – the comedy of emotional truth. The Minnesotans/North Dakotans are capable of the same level of anger and evil that Buscemi and Stormare are, but they keep those passions at bay (assuming they aren’t behind the relative anonymity of a steering wheel). The joke isn’t so much that William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard is incapable of horrible violence – it’s that he has been conditioned to be incapable of acting on impulse (the scene where he impotently tries to scrape ice from his windshield is at once hilarious and heartbreaking). The mundanity of Jerry’s evil is every bit as hilarious as Stormare shoving Buscemi’s body into a wood chipper.
It’s difficult to isolate a single character in a career as full of memorable people as the Coen’s, but, outside of perhaps Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, who has taken on a life all of his own outside of even the Coen’s influence (partially due to the fact that he’s based on a real guy), I believe that Marge is the Brothers’ most vital contribution to the greater lexicon. She is an anti-antihero – an unshakably good person that doesn’t immediately meet any of the physical ‘requirements’ of a typical matinee crime-fighter. She’s an average looking, 40-something woman who is heavily pregnant and in the throes of morning sickness. She speaks in a disarming Midwestern cadence without a hint of arrogance, yet she’s better at her job than her male counterparts. She’s also in a healthy, loving relationship with an ordinary man that supports her career choices, bucking the obnoxious trend of emasculated husbands that disapprove of their wife/partner’s lack of domestication (though the disapproving mate trope is equally obnoxious when you reverse the sexes). All of these things add up to one of the quintessential cinematic heroines of not only the ‘90s, but of all time.
The scene where Marge meets up with an old friend named Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), who awkwardly tries to seduce her, is the one scene in the movie that doesn’t fit. For years, I assumed it was because it was an off-rhythm cutaway from the main story arc, but, even though it loosens an otherwise taut script, it eventually serves a purpose (the events force Marge to change her assumption that Jerry was telling the truth during his interview). I now realize that my real problem with the scene was more conceptual – it doesn’t fit with my image of Marge as an idealized feminist icon. These are the only events that cram her into a traditional film role. She’s not objectified in the traditional Hollywood sense, but a character within the film is objectifying her. She is, however, briefly victimized in a fashion. It will always feel like an uncharacteristically off moment in an otherwise brilliant film because of it. (Do note that I’m more than willing to be talked out of my opinion in this matter)
Fargo has had a decent life on digital home media. Contrary to popular opinion (I guess?), I never had any major problems with Fox/MGM’s first Blu-ray release (released in 2009). It was likely made using the same source as the earlier anamorphic DVD releases and was a significant upgrade in terms of the important stuff, like detail (the DVD was always a bit blurry), colour quality, and overall clarity, but didn’t clear out the grain with unnecessary DNR processes. But there was definitely room for improvement, especially when it came to edge enhancement effects and element separation on the bleakest snowscapes. Recent history has made it very easy to trust MGM’s remastering processes, specifically the results of their Terminator and Robocop re-releases, because both of those discs were notable improvements on previous releases. The stakes aren’t quite as high in the case of Fargo, but the difference between this new 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer and the 2009 one are enough for fans to make the double (triple if we’re counting DVDs) dip.
As you can see from these screen caps (remaster on top, original release on bottom), there have been changes made. The most important difference is the lack of edge haloes and other sharpening artefacts, which were the old transfer’s chief offenders. A side effect is that some of the close-up details on the new release are a hair softer, but I believe we can assume that this is closer to the intended look, considering the artefacts surrounding the older transfer’s crispest lines and textures. The remaster also features more balanced grain levels, though I’m not entirely convinced what remains is natural film grain and not digital noise. At first, I assumed that the slightly softer close-ups and less prevalent grain were signs of DNR enhancement, but further comparison makes it clear that the old disc had harsher contrast levels to facilitate the artificial sharpening. This made for darker lines and film artefacts. This release’s gradations are more subtle and natural. The new disc is darker overall, which may appear ‘off’ in the screencaps, but, in motion, this darkness better serves Roger Deakins’ delicate and moody photography. MGM’s Terminator re-release did alter the original colour-timing pretty significantly, turning blue hues to teal ones. Fargo’s colours have, thankfully, not been critically altered since the first release, though the warmer hues, specifically reds and skin tones, have been drained of a touch of their previous rosiness and now appear more yellow/orange (see the caps of Buscemi’s face with red police lights behind him for an example of the subtle change).
Fargo is, once again, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. My ears didn’t hear any difference between this version and the previous release, so I’m going to assume the remastering process didn’t include messing with the original Blu-ray’s already fine audio. Unlike, say, No Country for Old Men, the Coens didn’t aim for a particularly aggressive mix. They opted for more ambient immersion and general mood than directional momentum and surround channel tricks. Most of the film is dialogue-driven and the most blunt sound effects are usually of the incidental variety – the vague noise of bar patrons, the car dealership’s Muzak, the hum of vehicles passing on the highway, et cetera. The uncompressed track helps keep the dialogue clear and the supportive effects deeply situated. The mix livens up between scenes, where the effects from one location blend into another. These bits sweep the important effect (sometimes dialogue) into the stereo or surround channels as well. Long-time musical collaborator Carter Burwell’s score is high among the mix’s most strident elements and is limited to only a handful of important sequences, where it boosts the emotion of the aural experience (sometimes to intended comedic effect). The instrumentations are rich, the flourishes and stereo augmentations are perfectly subtle, and the pounding kettle drums rumble the LFE beautifully.
There aren't new features on this disc. The recycled supplements include:
- Commentary with director of photography Roger Deakins
- Minnesota Nice featurette/EPK (27:50, SD)
- A trivia track
- A text and still-based American Cinematographer interview with Deakins
- A photo gallery
- A trailer and a TV spot
Fargo continues to age well and deserves a place in everyone’s home video collection. The old Blu-ray release wasn’t any kind of travesty, but it did have some clumpy grain and edge enhancement effects that have been dealt with for this remastered release. The DTS-HD MA mix sounds the same to my ears (which is fine) and MGM/Fox hasn’t included any new extras (which is expected, based on the Coen’s general disinterest in supplemental material).
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 1st April 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French (Quebecois), Spanish, Portuguese, DTS 5.1 French, Italian, Castellano, German, Dolby Digital 1.0 Hungarian
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Bulgarian, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Mandarin (Traditional), Norwegian, Polish, Thai, Turkis
Extras: Cinematographer Commentary, Minnesota Nice, Trivia Track, American Cinematographer Article, Photo Gallery, Trailer, TV Spot
Easter Egg: No
Director: Joel (and Ethan) Cohen
Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Film-Noir and Thriller
Length: 98 minutes
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