It doesn’t take long before you realize that Fargo, the mesmerizing thriller by Joel and Ethan Coen, is about blankness of all kinds — moral, ethical, emotional. Yet the movie itself is far from blank. In the past, the Coens have been accused of playing art-house film-nerd jokes on the audience. Fargo has its cruel jokes, too, but underneath them is a genuine respect for decency, a sympathy for human frailty. The blankness begins in the opening shot — a car slowly appearing in a completely white frame (white sky, snowy ground) as it heads towards us. This vast whiteness, this void, is a canvas that every character gets to paint on, usually in blood. The opening shot is a chilling image of possibility, a blank page whose emerging text can spell redemption or doom.

Fargo has a rather simple plot. A weaselly car salesman named Jerry (William H. Macy) hatches a plan to pry money out of his rich father-in-law: He hires two thugs to kidnap his wife, hoping to pocket half the ransom money he expects her dad to put up. Jerry, unfortunately, is an idiot, and the pair of thugs (hot-headed Steve Buscemi and cold-blooded Peter Stormare) aren’t Rhodes scholars either. The thugs, it seems, can’t drive three feet without having to resort to violence. Soon, several corpses are left to harden in the snow.

The Coens have visited this territory before, most notably in Blood Simple. What’s fresh about Fargo is its heroine, Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who carries a gun, a badge, and a very pregnant belly (she’s seven months along) that precedes her on the trail of the killers. McDormand, who has always been a great unsung character actress, has her best role yet as the dedicated Marge. The Coens don’t encourage you to laugh at her Minnesota accent (“Yaaah”) or the way she waddles around a crime scene (the unborn life inside her contrasts with the stark evidence of murder). The brothers know they’ve got the best movie heroine in years. Marge is polite, cheerful, whip-smart, and perpetually hungry. She does her part to melt this sharp icicle of a movie.

As usual, the Coens (Joel directs, Ethan produces, they both write the scripts) flood the climax with lurid gore and pain. A wood-chipper is put to bad use, and poor Steve Buscemi takes enough abuse for five movies. That this all happens against immaculate wintry backdrops makes the violence more horrific and more tragic. The blood freezes before it hits the ground. Your blood might freeze, too.

Like Hitchcock and David Lynch, the Coens create a surface of bland normality that gradually devolves into horror and perversity, until finally the perversity runs wild. But Fargo, with its easygoing earth-mother heroine, may be the Coens’ most accessible film yet, and definitely their richest and most mature. In other movies, the Coens got off on coolness bordering on coldness. This time, they show us that warmth can endure in a cold world without losing its vitality. Kind-hearted Marge points the way: The boys may chill our bones, but the woman thaws us out.

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