Set mainly in the Coen brothers’ native Minnesota and harking back to the sordid themes of their first feature (Blood Simple), this 1996 crime story may be their best picture to date, but if you have the same problems with their movies as I do Fargo won’t brush them all away. Though the Coens combine their usual derisive amusement toward their characters with a certain affection and condescending appreciation for some of the local yokels (in particular a pregnant police chief played by Frances McDormand), their well-honed antihumanist vision remains as bleak as ever. A slimy car dealer (William H. Macy) sunk in debt hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so they can split the ransom from her wealthy father (Harve Presnell); the scheme leads to a good many pointless deaths that we aren’t expected to care too deeply about. Given the Coens’ taste for hoaxes, their claim that some version of the story actually happened may or may not be specious, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. What mainly registers is the quiet desperation and simple pleasures of ordinary midwestern lives, the fatuous ways that people cover up their emotional and intellectual gaps, and the alternating pointlessness and cuteness of human existence. This may be a masterpiece of sorts, but it left me feeling rotten. 97 min. (JR)

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