March 11, 1996 12:00 PM

Frances McDormand, William H. Macy

The Coen brothers, director Ethan and producer-cowriter Joel, have finally latched onto a story strong enough to carry their eccentric mix of black humor and self-conscious style.

Based on a true 1987 murder case, Fargo is the tale of a squirmy car salesman (Macy) who hires two hit men to kidnap his wife in hopes of scoring enough ransom money (from her wealthy father) to swing a land deal. When said plan goes fatally wrong, a police chief (McDormand), pregnant and waddling about with a look of dazed good will, investigates.

A lot of this plays like a cartoon version of In Cold Blood, alternating between startling episodes of violence and dopey humor. But Fargo also boasts two of what will surely rank among 1996’s best performances.

Macy, with the helpless eyes of a ventriloquist’s dummy, turns his desperate character into an unexpectedly sympathetic soul. McDormand, slogging on despite morning sickness and a bloody trail, is his opposite, an adversary brimming with hope. The unarticulated bond between this odd pair makes Fargo hard to forget. (R)

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