Sunday, 27 April 2014

Review: Fargo 1.01 – The Crocodile’s Dilemma

Lovingly echoing its predecessor in tone, style and atmosphere, Noah Hawley’s Fargo, a new television series based loosely on the stone cold classic Coen Brothers film of the same name, is one of the best things I’ve seen on television this year thus far. Bringing back the nervous, darkly comic tone of the original for a new generation, the first episode of the series, titled The Crocodile’s Dilemma, tightly holds onto many of the aspects that made the 1996 film such an undisputed work of brilliance, but retains a surprising amount of uniqueness with its all-new, equally bloody narrative.

While Joel and Ethan Coen have given Noah Hawley nothing more than their blessing as executive producers and a currently unspecified number of scripts, Hawley does manage to capture the essence of the original Fargo whilst making it his own beast in the process. You see, this new adaptation features an almost entirely different narrative that echoes the original, introducing new characters thrown into or perhaps born from equally dark scenarios. Beyond that and the Minnesota setting, as well as tonal consistencies, Hawley’s Fargo offers us some fresh new twists and turns – of which there are plenty in The Crocodile’s Dilemma, some of which will have you shivering in fear.

At the forefront of the piece are Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, portraying Lester Nygaard and Lorne Malvo respectively. These two personas couldn’t be more contrasting in their capabilities and personalities, but when they cross paths through some pretty dodgy circumstances, the terrifyingly mysterious Lorne sets the chirpy albeit socially tortured Lester onto a path of destruction and carnage. Freeman’s portrayal of the metaphorically chained, failing salesman thrown out of his comfort zone – which wasn’t particularly comfortable to begin with – is absolutely spot on, and actually very likeable - not unlike William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundergaard, whom Freeman in some ways fills the boots of in this modern re-imagining.

Unlike Macy, however, Freeman brings a terrible sadness to the role of the failing salesman. His wife playfully beats him up with some blatantly self-aware verbal abuse; his brother tells him “I wish you were dead” for his lacking in common sense; and worst of all, the school bully still humiliates him far into adulthood. His shyness and train-wreck of thought is wimpy and pathetic, but Lester is a character I imagine most people will feel a hell of a lot of sympathy for thanks to his tortured existence – perhaps more-so than they did for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad.

Speaking of Breaking Bad, its creator Vince Gilligan has cited Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo as a huge inspiration on that show. What’s somewhat amusing, however, is that the Fargo TV series seems to borrow a fair bit from Gilligan’s magnum opus; and I’m not just talking about the inclusion of Bob Odenkirk, nor the fact that both series share the same editor. In terms of narrative structure one can’t help but compare The Crocodile’s Dilemma to the episode that begun spinning Walter White’s yarn. Lester goes through a transformation of sorts thanks to the world around him and ends up committing some pretty unspeakable acts because of it; and yet, you can still sympathise with him, much like many could with everyone’s favourite manipulative pork-pie hat sporting genius.

It’s not Lester Nygaard that fits the bill of the manipulative maniac in this universe, however. Those boots are reserved for Lorne Malvo, and you’d best make sure they’re polished. Malvo is a character I can see becoming a favourite of many, certainly myself, in the near future. His character is incredibly mysterious, ruthless and unsympathetic, with the motives for his actions being particularly questionable (fun, perhaps? Or maybe something more…) – and yet, I could never take my eyes off him in every single scene he inhabits and indeed steals with a brilliantly chilling performance from Billy Bob Thornton. He also packs a charmingly devilish personality. He’s the source of all the carnage that takes place in Fargo’s first hour and it all spawns from one unanswered question: “Yes… or no?”

I shan’t spoil anything that happens in this first hour, but if you think it’s going to be predictable having already sat through the film, think again. I was positively shocked at the twists and turns that this rollercoaster of a first episode took me on, not only from their superb execution but also how early they took place. Lorne Malvo doesn’t reveal any of his secrets in this first episode, but Lester sees more character development than you could shake a Heisenberg hat at. The best thing about this, undoubtedly, is that it didn’t feel rushed – and despite the lack of answers for Lorne, the character felt far from underdeveloped, packing plenty of potential adjectives that could be used to describe his character before he even speaks a word.

Aesthetically, Fargo is similar in style to the original, with a great soundtrack and a huge emphasis on the great white covering the quirky Minnesota setting. Speaking of quirkiness, and indeed speaking, fans of the film will be happy to know that the much-loved accents are back, as are the quips we remember so fondly, now coming out of the mouths of Martin Freeman and the majority of his fellow cast. Does he do a good job emulating the accent, what with his British origins? Oh ya, you betcha.

The Crocodile’s Dilemma isn’t without its problems, though. To me personally, the last ten minutes of the episode felt just a little tacked-on and disjointed, both in terms of the editing and the events that take place in these scenes. These sequences weren’t bad by any means, and I’d never say no to more of Billy Bob Thornton’s brilliance as Lorne, but I feel the episode would’ve benefited from ending on a much larger cliff-hanger, such as the aforementioned major events that took place towards the end of the first hour. This is a very minor complaint, however, and it really didn’t hurt the experience all that much. Suffice to say, the very last scene of the episode will most definitely make sense in the coming weeks.

If you had qualms about whether or not Noah Hawley’s Fargo adaptation would live up to what many consider to be the Coens’ finest then put those qualms to rest, because The Crocodile’s Dilemma was an absolutely superb opener for a series that I hope will stay consistent throughout its ten episode run. Different enough to not be pitted against the original but faithful to its tone and quality, Fargo might just be one of the best series of the year if it keeps up the quality demonstrated in its opening.