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Fargo - Review * 23 June 2014

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This review contains some spoilers for the complete ten episode mini-series.

Minnesota Nice meets jet black comedy, with a liberal dose of bloody violence.

That was the greatest tonal takeaway from Fargo, the Coen Brothers' Oscar winning 1996 film. The movie lasted for a scant 94 minutes, leaving a few threads deliberately hanging to suggest the pointlessness of the spiralling criminal endeavour we had seen unfold, but ultimately keeping its narrative compact and indeed complete by the close. There was no real reason to suggest this story had anywhere else to go, so the announcement of a ten episode limited mini-series based upon the world of the film was one of the more intriguing announcements by FX Networks in late 2013. The addition of Martin Freeman in a leading role in an American cable television series naturally secured our eager attention come broadcast in mid-April 2014.

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Martin plays Lester Nygaard, an insurance salesman and hopeless loser when we first meet him. Lester is a man who the audience ends up sharing the most uncomfortable bond with, someone who we initially feel pity towards, who we guiltily cheer when he snaps and murders his wife with a hammer in the opening episode, and a person who we emotionally abandon as his actions become truly detestable as the series barrels along. Lester takes a perverse inversion of the Hero's Journey in some ways, for as he becomes more confident in himself he begins a downward spiral of empowerment, travelling from squirrely panic to reckless hubris. Eventually he evolves into a relentlessly self-serving individual, desperate to save himself whatever the cost to others, and by the penultimate episode of the series our initial sympathy and desire to see him evade arrest has completely evaporated. For Martin Freeman, this is in many ways some uncharted territory. He clearly grabs the role with enormous relish - witness Lester's brazen 'confession' in the astounding pre-credits sequence of the seventh episode - gradually shifting from an emasculated scaredy cat to suddenly emerging as an utterly ruthless weasel who is a world away from the goodness inherent to the characters that he has become most famous for playing, such as John Watson and Bilbo Baggins.

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This journey from terrified nobody to impulsive overconfidence is all due to a chance encounter with the drifting hitman Lorne Malvo, as played with astonishing, terrifying clarity by Billy Bob Thornton. In many ways the series could be seen as a two hander between Freeman and Thornton, even though their scenes of shared screen time could be counted on one hand. Malvo is wiley, charming, ruthless, absurd, funny, commanding, lethal, and ultra-violent - but in short, an ambiguous personification of pure evil. With coolly detached glee he effortlessly incites others to commit deviant acts - both small and murderously bloody - through simple words. His own physical actions are even more horrendous. He poisons all he comes into contact with, whether immediately or much further down the line, with an unavoidable sense that this may be sociological engineering on his part - a desire to sit back and enjoy the chaos he can unleash. There is something of the Biblical about the character through his methods, dropping in throw away religion tinted lines or even Old Testament style plague themed horrors, and in places he is intentionally a primal player that can seemingly appear and disappear at supernatural will. Thornton utterly excels in the role, delivering a character unlike perhaps any seen on television - and most disquietingly for the audience, despite Malvo's terrifying nature, it's difficult not to like him at times.  

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The character we warm to most of all is Molly Solverson, a police officer played by relative newcomer Allison Tollman. In terms of the tonal parallels to the original film, Molly is the cypher of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) - she is effectively the smartest person in town, able to realise who the true perpetrators of the events that transpire are in near perfect clarity. Unlike the film though, here her detective work is left and largely ignored thanks to interventions by her useless superiors, yet her terrier determination never allows her to release her hold on getting to the bottom of the complex criminal web. Tollman delivers the burst of oh-gosh-normality we crave in the face of Freeman and Thornton's performances, and by the close of the series Molly is easily the character we root for above all others - with Colin Hanks' turn as officer Gus Grimly a close second. Hanks invests Gus with a sense of sadness and fretfulness that is balanced by good heartedness and honesty. The audience may be at risk of wanting to shake him into actually doing the right thing though, for he is prone to mistakes throughout - be it the reckless, such as a tense and near fatal encounter in a swirling blizzard, or the unavoidable, when he allows Malvo to go free in the face of genuinely unnerving intimidation in the opening episode. Unlike the consistent warmth of Molly though, that direct encounter with Malvo eventually unlocks a darker side that briefly breaks through come the close.

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Away from these four central performances, Fargo is filled out with a raft of numerous excellent supporting players, bringing us memorable characters that are invested with a gigantic dose of quirk. Some, such as Keith Carradine's Lou Solverston, give us a calming anchor (and coffee and pie) to grip onto as events transpire, or amuse us but frustrate the progress of events as in the case of Molly's blindly ignorant boss Bill Oswalt, played by Bob Odenkirk. Then there are characters such as Mr Numbers and Mr Wrench, played by Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard respectively, a pair of hitmen with a natty line in inventive victim disposal that parallels a certain infamous wood chipper incident - with the added wrinkle that Wrench is deaf, and so both have to communicate through signing. And tying us unexpectedly back to the events of the film itself is Oliver Platt as Stavros Milos, who by chance many years before found a briefcase filled with money, buried under blood-caked snow by a wire fence running along an anonymous road, and thus becomes a target for the relentlessly inventive Lorne Malvo.     

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Aside from the astounding breadth of characterisation on display onscreen though, Fargo is an incredibly well produced series thanks to beautiful use of location and cinematography. It looks very much a part of the world of the film, following on from Roger Deakins' cinematic work - and at certain points, ably replicates it. The series is also able to leverage the space and place to field some astounding set pieces, such as a gunfight in a blizzard, or a superbly clever visualisation of a horrifying office massacre, viewed in a tracking shot outside of the tinted windows of the building that hides the terrible slaughter occurring inside. In addition, Jeff Russo's score - occasionally riffing on Carter Burwell's work on the film - delivers a sonic experience that veers from understated to epically sweeping. The genuine masterstroke of the series though comes from the quality of creator Noah Hawley's writing across all ten episodes, creating a tonally similar world that is cleverly constructed to feel distinct from the classic movie before revealing that it is actually quite explicitly linked to it, and filled with a cast of original and unexpected characters who never behave in the way you would expect - the main aim of the series is to wrong foot the viewer all while subtly setting up a finale that you simply could not predict from the early instalments.  

In summation, Fargo is one of the US television highlights of the year thus far - a small screen series that potentially betters the cinematic source that inspired it, spinning multiple plotlines simultaneously while driving towards a singular and understated endgame, with all those threads eventually colliding come the close. If you are only familiar with Martin Freeman through his work in The Office, Sherlock or The Hobbit Trilogy, be prepared for an eye opening, astounding performance across the ten episode span of the mini-series. Through his sterling work and the performances of the rest of the cast, we are given a quirky, blackly funny and blood spattered moralistic fable that never preaches, but instead demonstrates the darkness that some human beings are capable of hubrisically inflicting upon each other - and the relentless determination that others will deploy to bring them to justice, whether literal or heavily poetic.

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