Tuesday, April 15, 2014

REVIEW: 'Fargo' - Lester Nygaard Meets Lorne Malvo and Chaos Ensues in 'The Crocodile's Dilemma'

FX's Fargo - Episode 1.01 The Crocodile's Dilemma

A rootless, manipulative man (Billy Bob Thornton) meets a small town insurance salesman (Martin Freeman) and sets him on a path of destruction.

"This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

That's the epigraph that proceeds every episode of Fargo, FX's true crime limited series - whatever the heck that phrase means to you in 2014 - and adaptation of the Coen Brothers 1996 movie of the same name, as the orchestra swells and the title comes across the screen. The Coen Brothers serve as executive producers but there involvement on this series has basically amounted to reading the pilot script and giving it their seal of approval.

I'm in a really unique position when it comes to this series because I have never seen the movie that the series lifts its personality from. So, I've been able to approach this series without any preconceived notions of what to expect. Good characters are good characters no matter what. So even if this was a beat for beat remake of the movie, if it was told with interesting characters it still could be worth viewing. I'm told the plot of this 10-episode event is its own thing. Completely separate from the story done in the movie. The characters are different. The details are different. This is the story of "Minnesota nice" people. The accents are a very Hollywood understanding of the region. However, they don't quite go into full on parody which would have really taken me out of the story and the characters. Martin Freeman's accent is the wobbliest of this deep ensemble cast - most of whom you don't even meet in this first episode despite its long running time. However, he is giving such a committed performance that his accent doesn't detract too much from my overall enjoyment of Fargo as a whole.

"You spent your whole life thinking there's rules. There aren't. We used to be gorillas. All we had was what we could take and defend. Truth is you're more a man today than you were yesterday." - Lorne Malvo

The television medium has done stories of people who suddenly break bad or feature a character who is such a physical embodiment of the devil before - and done them well (i.e. Breaking Bad, Hannibal). Fargo is a really nice and pleasant version of the same story - always on the cusp of greatness but never quite going all the way. But it also has a distinct voice and characters that pull you in and make you think about them and why they do the stuff that they do.

"The Crocodile's Dilemma" effectively spends half of its running time just kicking Lester Nygaard down and down and down again. He's emasculated by his wife, bullied by his high school bully, criticized by his younger brother and manipulated by this stranger he met in the hospital. For his 40 years on this earth, Lester has been content with life but terrified or nervous about doing anything. He doesn't bother doing anything to fix his problems because he figures that he can't do anything that would change anything at all.

Conversely, there's Lorne Malvo who is this calm, cool and collected profession hitman and really just this big enigmatic sociopath. He's one of the most devilish pot-stirrers out there. He has come to this area for a job in Duluth - the details of which are explained in next week's episode. And yet, he spends all this time in Bemidji because he just wants to see what kind of chaos he can cause. He spots weakness in people and manipulates that feeling in them so that they do stuff they normally wouldn't do. There's the simple plots like telling the worker at the motel to pee in his boss' car. And then, there's the grand mess he does with Lester.

Lester breaks. He does something out-of-the-ordinary for him and tries to fix the broken washing machine. He fails and his wife starts going at him again. And then, he hits her with a hammer multiple times and kills her. Lester likely never would have done it if he didn't meet Lorne but something else has been building within him for awhile. People note that he's stared off into space recently. And yet, he's still content with life despite always getting knocked down. He kills her and feels remorse - wanting to point the gun in Lorne's face and blame him.

And then, of course, there is the hero of this story who happens to be a member of the Bemidji police department. This first hour effectively teases us along. We believe that it's going to be Police Chief Vern Thurman. He's the experienced man in the job. His equal is played by Bob Odenkirk who gets physically ill at the sight of a dead body. He's a mentor to young budding detective Molly. He's the most well-equipped member of the police force to take on the destruction that's just starting with Lester and Lorne.

But he walks in on Lester, sees what he's done and then Lorne kills him too. It's a shocking moment that makes us rethink about the dynamics and relationships of the show. Molly looked up to him as a mentor and he noted how great of a detective and future chief she will be. His death hits her hard. She was the one who wanted to go over to Lester's house. Vern was happy at his job but he also had a loving and very pregnant wife at home. He was building a future. Molly has her dad who is always worrying about her safety on the job. Now, she's gonna be called on to pick up the pieces from Vern's death. Lorne and this community likely won't make this job easy for her. And then, there's Lester who is one big question mark. He's by no means innocent. He killed his wife after all. But I honestly have no clue how we are suppose to feel about Lester. With Lorne, he's a mystery that draws you in to unlock the various nuances and pieces. With Lester, it's an erratic display of emotions - which could prove to be a completely different thing of enjoyment.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Crocodile's Dilemma" was written by Noah Hawley and directed by Adam Bernstein.
  • We don't even meant the Colin Hanks character until the final ten minutes of the pilot. But he's such an important character later on in the series.
  • There's some pretty weird characters in this piece. I should also point out the difference there is between dim and eccentric characters. The only people that seem to have a realistic clue on what's happening are the four actors billed as regulars - Thornton, Freeman, Tomlin and Hanks. The rest cover a portion of this universe but are similarly intriguing.
  • "The Crocodile's Dilemma" clocks in at 1 hour and 10 minutes without any commercial interruption. FX has a pretty loose standing with episode running times. The next few episodes of Fargo run long too - the next three are around 50 minutes each.