This is a true story. A man walks into a bar, and approaches two others who have been waiting, but they're not too pleased to see him because they think he's late. He apologises, and they get down to business: the man is Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) and he has a propostion for them: kidnap his wife and there will be money in it, a lot of money. One of the two criminals, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), starts asking questions about where the cash will come from and why he needs it, but Jerry is cagey, and simply says he's in debt and his rich father-in-law (Harve Presnell) won't help out. The three men have a deal...
One of the most notable aspects to this, perhaps the most respected film from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, was the dialogue, and some were put off by the apparently jokey way the characters talked, with liberal use of the word "Ya" to denote their Minnesotan origins, indeed there are those who find that dialogue either too patronising or too annoying to truly appreciate the movie. But this source of irritation you can only assume was deliberate, for the theme of the film was as much how much annoyance a person can stand as it was crime does not pay. Much of this was centered on the Carl character, and Buscemi was gifted one of his finest roles as the increasingly hapless small time crook.
Not every filmmaker would include a short scene in their thriller where the hoodlum in question had just pulled off a small victory in his scheme, then was forced to pay four dollars to the car parking attendant and get really angry about it, but that was all part and parcel of the sense of humour indulged here, and every time something terrible happened to Carl we started laughing all the more, even though what was going on featured some very bloody scenes. Nervy car dealer Jerry was not much better, another pitch perfect performance in a film packed with them, as his plan to get his father-in-law's fortune by staging a fake kidnapping goes increasingly awry as it becomes a real kidnapping and the dead bodies mount up.
Into this melée wanders Sheriff Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand in the role which justly won her an Oscar. At first she seems as out of her depth in dealing with the lawbreaking on this deadly scale as any of the other locals, but underneath her singsong plain speaking and apparent naivety, we gradually begin to discern the reason why she's the Sheriff, because she has the ability to put two and two together and make five. She would have made a great lead character in a series of paperback crime thrillers, but as it was she was excellent value here in spite of only showing up a third of the way into the plot, indelibly marking out the sense of decency which the schemers have eschewed for their personal gain. There are degrees of evil here, and Marge is the unassuming vanguard of doing the right thing and eventual justice.
Although she's still not able to save the lives of those who do fall by the wayside. If Jerry is the petty-minded evildoer, in a jam which he should have either found a better, legal way out of or never gotten into in the first place, then Carl's associate Gaear (a stonefaced Peter Stormare) is the type of unknowable evildoer whose motivations wouldn't be understandable to anyone for whom actual murder would never cross their minds, and may not even be apparent in his own mind. The fact that Marge is able to best these men was really the stuff of a traditional crime yarn, it would be ideal as a television episode if it were not for the idiosyncratic approach of the directors, but they made clear the virtue of her stable home life with doting husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) was of such a contrast to the violence and conniving that by the final scene, where order has been restored, it was possible to be genuinely moved by her offbeat nobility. Great score by Carter Burwell, too. It's not a true story.