Billy Bob Thornton Is The Devil You Don't Know On 'Fargo'

Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo in "Fargo." (Matthias Clamer/FX)
Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo in "Fargo." (Matthias Clamer/FX)

When I say that “Fargo,” the TV series is better than “Fargo,” the movie you might want to take that with a grain of salt, particularly if you’re a Coen Brothers fan.

I am not, I’ve finally decided, after nodding appreciatively at many of their films for the past 30 years, trying to convince myself that I liked them more than I did.

I admired their first couple, “Blood Simple” and “Raising Arizona.” The films since then are always interesting to look at, but with each passing work their humor seems glib, their serious films pretentious. The worst of them, like “A Serious Man,” are both. When their films come on cable the only one I can watch for more than five minutes is “The Big Lebowski.” Barely. “Inside Llewyn Davis”? O Brother, how tedious art thou.

So yes, I like “Fargo” the FX show, starting Tuesday night, more than the movie. (The Coen Brothers, as executive producers, OK'd the series, but don't oversee it.) It’s vaguely reminiscent of the film. Allison Tolman is an “Aw, jeez” naïve but steadfast police deputy (a la Frances McDormand), out to get the goods on Martin Freeman, a “Heck, just heck” salesman (a la William Macy), who in this case, unlike the film, kills his wife.

Billy Bob Thornton in "Fargo." (Chris Large/FX)
Billy Bob Thornton in "Fargo." (Chris Large/FX)

But there’s no “a la” when it comes to contract killer Billy Bob Thornton vs. Steve Buscemi. It’s Thornton’s phenomenal performance that makes this series so watchable. Buscemi was as goofy as the rest of the “Fargo” film, but Thornton is evil incarnate in his modified goatee and long coat. You’ll be pleased to meet him, hope you guess his name.

Not that he’s Mephistopheles, himself. At least it’s not spelled out in the first four episodes made available for review. But a Coen-Buscemi goofball? No way. He's Lorne Malvo, almost an anagram for malevolent and he lives up to his name. Still, one of the admirable aspects of so many FX series — “Justified,” “The Americans,” “American Horror Story” — is that the producers aren’t afraid to make their bad guys and gals charismatic. As the devil should be. When Thornton tells Freeman, "If you don't stand up to the boss, the wife, you're gonna get washed away," he’s seductive, a life coach practically. When you see him in action, not so much.

Here's a preview:

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Thornton better. “Monster’s Ball,” maybe. Certainly not in the Coens’ drab “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” His Malvo is a performance that can haunt your dreams, particularly as written by the talented Noah Hawley., When someone tries to sell Malvo a crossbow in case a zombie invasion turns things into a dog-eat dog world, Lorne calmly tells him: “It’s already a dog-eat-dog world, friend. I don’t know how much worse zombies could make it.”

Thornton isn’t the only fine actor here. Freeman is always excellent. Tolman is equally good as Molly Solverson; Colin Hanks as police officer Gus Grimly joins her on the positive side of the law (unlike in “Dexter”); and Keith Carradine takes a winning turn as her father. It’s always fun to see Bob Odenkirk (“Breaking Bad”), though he’s a bit wasted as Molly's boss. Oliver Platt is amusing, if over the top, as a supermarket magnate set up for blackmail.

Allison Tolman and Bob Odenkirk in "Fargo." (Chris Large/FX)
Allison Tolman and Bob Odenkirk in "Fargo." (Chris Large/FX)

Hawley juggles the storyline, nicely, though, and director Adam Bernstein and photographer Matthew J. Lloyd set an excellent tone as director of the first two episodes in re-creating the flat, wintry, wide-shot look of the Coens’ film and adding, thankfully, more menace into the look. (Alberta, Canada, fills in for Minnesota.)

When Platt’s character finds money by the side of the road he declares, “God is real.” I don’t know that you’ll find much sustenance in the rest of the show for that declaration. But Thornton and the creative team might just have you believing in the other fellow. “Fargo” looks like a helluva ride.

Here are the first seven minutes:

Two More Appreciative Looks At The Coen Brothers

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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