In the whited-out, crusted-over Great Plains inhabited by Fargo’s commonplace heroes and villains, everything crunches—the snow underfoot, the ice on the windshield, the drift under which a briefly lucky lowlife buries almost a million dollars in cash. None of that, however, is as brittle as the film itself. The latest chilly entertainment from Joel and Ethan Coen, Fargo is an utterly heartless valentine to Midwest mundanity.

The Minnesota-bred Coens protest that they’ve never set a film in their home turf before, but Fargo is hardly fresh territory for them. After the bigger themes (and budg-ets) of Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy drew smaller audiences, the brothers have returned to the deadpan gothic of Blood Simple, their 1984 debut. Once again, a hired thug proves unreliable, and a planned crime goes awry.

Since Simple, however, movies about bungled capers have become endemic. When Fargo’s rent-a-hoods, chatty Carl and laconic Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), mess up a roadside encounter with a cop, the scene transports the viewer all the way back to last month, when Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead featured a similar scene. (It’s not insignificant that Denver also starred Buscemi; the smartass gangster genre recycles players as often as it does characters and plots.)

Writer/director Joel and writer/producer Ethan Coen announce their latest as a “true story” and decorate it with ostentatiously flat Midwestern accents and such admittedly obsolete regional details as the smorgasbord restaurant where pregnant small-town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, a Blood Simple veteran and Joel’s wife) loads up on fat and protein. Everyone says things like “oh geez” and “ya betcha” and means well—except for car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who hires Carl and Gaear to kidnap his wife, Jean. The ransom money Jerry expects to collect from Jean’s father, Wade (Harve Presnell), will get him out of a jam at work, and also serve as a sort of revenge against his arrogant, openly contemptuous father-in-law.

The kidnapping goes more or less as planned, but after that, Jerry’s scheme self-destructs. Neither Carl nor Wade plays his part as Jerry expected, and the would-be mastermind’s life is further complicated by the tenacity of Marge, whose combination of irrepressible folksiness and deductive skill inevitably suggests a gravid Columbo. Along with the cartoonish accents, the contrast between McDormand’s workaday cool and Macy’s wimpy panic is the film’s comic engine. Also oddly effective is Steve Park’s brief turn as one of Marge’s former classmates, whose appearance has nothing to do with the film’s plot but does underscore the theme that derangement lurks just beneath Midwestern normality.

That Lynchian message has lost its kick, however, as has the Coens’ taste for black-comic bloodletting and their ironic celebration of kitsch: Neither the disposal of a body in a woodchipper (also seen just last month, in Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx) nor the appearance of Jose Feliciano (compare Tarantino’s invocations of ’60s and ’70s pop dross) has the intended impact. Marge is an amusing creation, but by the time of her final lecture to one of the miscreants—“It’s a beautiful day,” she chirps—she’s lost her charm. Her essential humanity is Fargo’s principal unexpected gimmick, and even that is eventually frozen stiff by the Coens’ callous machinations.CP