Screen Studies - Shifting Protagonists in Fargo
Me and You and Memento and Fargo
Me and You and Memento and Fargo

J.J. Murphy

J. J. Murphy is Professor of Film Production and Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His films have played at major international film festivals and have been screened at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Austrian Film Museum (Vienna), the Barbican Film Centre (London), and the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2007


Content Type:

Book chapter


Fargo, Memento

Genres, Movements and Styles:

American Independent, Melodrama

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Shifting Protagonists in Fargo

DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 65–84

Ethan and Joel Coen’s debut feature, Blood Simple (1984), showed a unique ability to combine their particular brand of offbeat humor with a clever reworking of film noir, and their subsequent films have continued this penchant for innovative twists on classic American film genres. The Coen brothers have shifted between large-budget, studio-produced works and independent productions throughout their careers. After their $25 million The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) proved to be a fiasco, the Coens returned to their independent roots with the much lower-budget, regionally flavored Fargo (1996), which unexpectedly became their biggest critical and commercial success. Fargo wound up being nominated for seven Academy Awards, eventually winning in the best actress and best original screenplay categories. Fargo also swept the Indie Spirit Awards in six categories, including Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. While it is difficult to think of a $6.5 million film as truly independent, Fargo nevertheless exhibits the sensibility of a small regional film with superb production values. By setting the film in the incongruous snowy location of the Upper Midwest, the Coens literally invert the meaning of film noir, while maintaining the crime genre’s sinister overtones. The real innovation of Fargo, however, rests less on its play on genre than on its somewhat unorthodox script, which not only seems to lack a clear protagonist, but incorporates a dramatic structure that most screenwriting manuals do not admit is even possible.

In this first section, I’ve used the term “problematic protagonists,” to discuss alternative strategies to the goal-driven protagonist, but I wish to clarify that I don’t really consider either an ambivalent or passive protagonist to be a problem. They are bona fide options. Such protagonists, as we have seen in the previous two chapters, result in their films having less drama and different strategies of narration. They are only considered problematic in terms of the classical tradition advocated by most manuals. In fact, most manuals also make it seem as if the protagonist of a film is patently obvious, yet I don’t always find this to be the case. Who’s the protagonist of such films as Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, Gas Food Lodging, or To Sleep With Anger? Does it matter? In terms of writing a script, Linda Aronson argues that it does. She writes, “The reason we need to identify the protagonist is because giving this job to the wrong characters can make plot and characterization fall apart.”[1]

Multiple-plot films, the subject of the next section, often raise questions regarding the main protagonist. In Fargo, which has this type of structure, the issue turns out to be a central one. Many commentators have chosen to sidestep the issue entirely. One asserts that Fargo is an ensemble film with no lead character.[2] As we will see later, while Richard Linklater’s Slacker doesn’t have a main protagonist, I don’t find this to be the case in Fargo. Yet who functions as the film’s protagonist? There are four main characters: Jerry, Marge, Carl, and Grimsrud. If we decide that Carl and Grimsrud, rather than Jerry, serve as the obvious antagonists, that leaves only two real possibilities for the protagonist. It has to be either Jerry or Marge. The film begins with Jerry, and most of the film is concerned with his ransom scheme—the central element of the plot—without which there would be neither Carl and Grimsrud nor Marge. If Jerry is the protagonist, however, he is certainly not a terribly likeable one. He tries to extract ransom money from his own father-in-law, uses cars he doesn’t own as collateral, sticks it to customers by insisting on adding rust-proofing to the price of a new car, and seems to care very little for his son, Scotty.

Despite Jerry’s less-than-admirable behavior, he is not a truly bad person—like Carl, Grimsrud, or even Shep Proudfoot—but a bumbling loser who has managed somehow to find himself in over his head. The Coen brothers’ predilection for such a character stems from a desire to go against the typical Hollywood characterization of the “super-professional who controls everything,” resulting in a film they find “closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies.”[3] If Jerry is not the film’s protagonist, then the Coens certainly spend a good deal of time establishing his character traits and motivating his behavior. Jerry is a virtual outsider within his own family unit, which is dominated by his blustering millionaire father-in-law, Wade Gustafson, who clearly has very little respect for him. Jerry has become so frustrated by his own personal situation and inability to pull off his cockeyed get-rich schemes that several times in the course of the film he explodes into childlike temper tantrums. Jerry does not really intend to hurt anyone—he simply needs to come up with a large amount of money—and he is so obtuse that he never anticipates that something might go wrong with his ransom scheme, even though his own twelve-year-old son seems to grasp this possibility. That Jerry’s plan involves kidnapping his own wife, Jean, and extorting money from his father-in-law adds a sad and pathetic dimension to his character. Even the two low-life thugs, whom Jerry hires to do the dirty work, indicate that they find the whole scheme to be contemptible.

Throughout Fargo, we also spend a good deal of time following Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota, as she attempts to solve the murders. Besides her detective work, there are additional scenes of her home life with her house-husband, Norm, a wildlife painter who aspires to have his work displayed on postage stamps—that is, when he is not out ice fishing. There is also a rather curious scene involving Mike Yanagita, a former classmate, whom Marge meets at the Radisson Inn in the Twin Cities. The most obvious question is: What function does the scene with Mike Yanagita—which takes up three and a half pages in the script and four minutes of screen time in the actual film—serve in the story?

Marge first receives a late-night phone call from Mike, who has seen her on the TV news. Marge surprises even Norm by heading to the Twin Cities, ostensibly to investigate a lead involving Shep Proud-foot, but her real reason for the trip seems to be to meet Mike. As they sit in the hotel bar and Mike begins to talk about his wife, Linda Cook-sey, he slides next to Marge and tries to put his arm around her. Marge, however, makes it clear that she would prefer that he continue to sit across from her. Mike apologizes to Marge and then proceeds to discuss how his wife died of leukemia. After a toast to “Better times,” the scene takes a very strange turn:

Mike: It was so . . . I been so . . . and then I saw you on TV, and I remembered, ya know . . . I always liked you . . .
Marge: Well, I always liked you, Mike.
Mike: I always liked ya so much . . .
Marge: It’s okay, Mike—Should we get together another time, ya think?
Mike: No—I’m sorry! It’s just—I been so lonely—then I saw you, and . . .
He is weeping.
. . . I’m so sorry . . . I shouldn’t a done this . . . I thought we’d have a really terrific time, and now I’ve ...
Marge: It’s okay . . .
Mike: You were such a super lady . . . and then I . . . I been so lonely . . .
Marge: It’s okay, Mike . . .[4]

Marge’s motivation for meeting with Mike is never very clear. The fact that she does not tell Norm about it, however, suggests that there might have been some type of previous romantic interest. When Marge arrives at the hotel bar, it is also the only time we really see her really dressed up and trying to look attractive. After Mike tries to put the moves on Marge, she discourages his advances very politely. Marge, however, does admit to Mike that she always liked him. When Mike indicates the intensity of his feelings for her, Marge responds, “It’s okay, Mike—Should we get together another time, ya think?” Right after this, Mike falls completely apart.

The scene between Marge and Mike Yanagita seems to be there to develop Marge’s character. In fact, without the scene it would be more difficult to make the case for Marge as the protagonist because, by itself, the scene (like the later one involving Officer Gary Olson and a local bartender) appears to be extraneous to the plot. When Marge later finds out that Mike has made up the story about his wife dying of leukemia, it does cause her to pay a surprise visit to Jerry at the dealership. Even so, the sheer length of this particular scene suggests that the Coens do not really need to create such a long scene in order to motivate Marge’s second visit to Jerry, especially since she proves to be an astute detective from the moment she appears at the scene of the triple homicide. The fact that Marge finds out later that Mike has lied to her catches her off-guard, adding an element of personal disequilibrium to the banality of her small-town life.

Figure 3.1. Mike Yanagita at the Radisson Inn

Yet if Marge is the actual protagonist of Fargo, there are at least two anomalies. The first is that rather than Marge, Jerry is the one who has the dramatic conflict. The second, and even more unusual aspect, would be the fact that Marge does not appear until the second act, about thirty-three minutes into the film. The convention, of course, is for a protagonist to be established early in a narrative film, especially since the story would often be told from his or her point of view. Richard Walter, for example, insists, “Each movie needs its protagonist with clear needs, and hurdles obstructing the path to satisfying those needs. And that character, those needs, those hurdles, and that tone must be asserted in the film’s beginning.”[5] Syd Field espouses a similar position. In the Screenwriter’s Workbook, he discusses the film Absence of Malice in considerable detail. Concerning the film’s structure, Field writes:

This screenplay is one in which the main character doesn’t appear until the end of Act I. Before you get too excited about that, though, notice that Michael Gallagher has been talked about and referred to from page 1. If you write a script like this, you still have to introduce your main character in the first ten pages.[6]

Marge is certainly not introduced or mentioned within the first ten pages or ten minutes of the film, even though it would have been easy enough to establish her as a character before the triple homicide is committed.

John Egan suggests that a new type of structure emerged in the 1990s that violates conventional dramatic structure. He deems this the “multiple plot structure” and his examples include Secrets and Lies, The English Patient, Pulp Fiction, and Kansas City. He explains, “The traditional Hollywood formula film focuses on the central lead throughout the film. At certain plot points something will happen to the lead, allowing the plot to develop. All other characters are subordinate, existing only to develop the lead character’s relationship to the plot.”[7] Egan’s formula example embodying the above is Jerry Maguire, but many Hollywood films conform to this pattern. “In the ’90s New Wave,” he writes, “there are no easily recognizable leads and no clearly defined plot in relation to a lead.”[8] He goes on to describe the essence of the multiple-plot alternative as “multiple plots and casts fusing in spurts of action that lead to the revelation of the ‘true plot’ in the final act” and suggests, in terms of relevance here, that such a structure is “perfect for stories in which the main character is objectionable and loathsome.”[9] Egan’s multiple-plot structure clearly differs from Robert McKee’s concept of “Multiplot,” which refers to the kind of structure found in Robert Altman’s Shortcuts, in which there is no central plot, but only a series of interweaving subplots.[10]

Fargo fits Egan’s version of a multiple-plot structure only partially. It does not focus on one central lead, but instead follows Jerry, Carl, and Marge at various points in the film. Since Marge doesn’t even appear in the first act, the actual focus of the film seems to shift from Jerry to Marge as it progresses, especially because Jerry has very little to do with the film once Wade supplants him at the ransom meeting. By the film’s end, Marge clearly appears to be more central than Jerry, which is why the film ends on her. And while Jerry is, in fact, a fairly loathsome main character, in contrast to Marge, who’s extremely likeable, there is no true plot that is revealed in the third act. Norm’s postage stamp art competition can only qualify as a minor subplot.

Although it is an unusual structural strategy to shift protagonists during the course of the film, it is not unprecedented, since this is exactly what happens in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). McKee, in fact, acknowledges this possibility in discussing his notion of a “Plural-Protagonist”:

It’s even possible, in rare instance, to switch protagonists halfway through a story. Psycho does this, making the shower murder both an emotional and a formal jolt. With the protagonist dead, the audience is momentarily confused; whom is this movie about? The answer is a Plural-Protagonist as the victim’s sister, boyfriend, and a private detective take over the story.[11]

Despite their similarity in shifting protagonists, Fargo and Psycho differ in that Fargo has a multi-protagonist rather than a plural-protagonist, because Marge and Jerry have contrary rather than collective objectives.

Although Psycho is really a story about a deranged murderer, Norman Bates, it was the film’s screenwriter, Joseph Stefano, who came up with the idea to begin the story with the victim, Marion Crane, a woman who wants to get married so desperately that she steals $40,000 from her employer and flees town.[12] The character of Norman is not introduced until twenty-six minutes into the film, when a rainstorm forces Marion to stop at the run-down Bates Motel. There, she is brutally murdered, presumably by Norman’s jealous mother, as she takes a shower. Hitchcock and Stefano manage to confound viewer expectations by killing off the film’s ostensible protagonist at forty-seven minutes. After Marion is killed, the film makes the viewer shift identification to Arbogast, Lila, Sam, and even briefly to Norman, who is not revealed to be the actual villain until the very end of the film. The Coen brothers, on the other hand, do not kill off Jerry in Fargo, but they do seem to lose interest in him. Once the ransom scheme goes awry, Jerry’s role begins to diminish, especially when Marge gets introduced and Wade brushes Jerry aside in order to deliver the ransom money and confront the kidnappers. Jerry’s eventual capture is decidedly anticlimactic, mainly because he has not figured directly in any of the seven murders we witness, even though his ransom ploy is responsible for unleashing the film’s homicidal villains, Grimsrud and Carl.

Both Psycho and Fargo use unorthodox narrative construction to play deliberately with audience expectations. Hitchcock referred to the whole beginning of Psycho as a “red herring.” As Hitchcock explained to the noted French director François Truffaut, “You turn the viewer in one direction and then in another; you keep him as far as possible from what’s actually going to happen.”[13] The lengthy introductions to both Marion and Jerry in the respective films can be seen in this light, especially in terms of the great lengths the screenwriters go to in order to motivate their behavior and to make us feel sympathy for their circumstances, which leads both of them to engage in criminal acts. It becomes clear that the Coen brothers are, in fact, referencing Psycho at various points in Fargo, not only in terms of the film’s narrative construction, but also with such elements as the shower curtain and what happens to the actual ransom money.

In the introduction to the published screenplay, Ethan Coen provides the following description of Fargo: “It evokes the abstract landscape of our childhood—a bleak, windswept tundra, resembling Siberia except for its Ford dealerships and Hardee’s restaurants. It aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true.”[14] The Coens succeed admirably in turning the unending whiteness of the northern Midwest into a completely barren place. The Coen brothers also present an over-the-top rendition of the Scandinavian accent prevalent in the region, making all the locals in Fargo, as Thomas Goetz points out, sound like “North Country crackers.”[15] The Coens’s joke is, of course, at their hometown neighbors’ expense. And while they are careful to wink at the telling, the film nevertheless reinforces certain Midwestern stereotypes.

Figure 3.2. Carl and Grimsrud at the bar

Fargo begins with a tongue-in-cheek opening text announcing that this is a true story that took place in Minnesota in 1987: “At the request of survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” The written words flare to a totally white, snowy landscape, as Jerry Lundegaard, a wimpy car salesperson in an Elmer Fudd hat, tows a new car to a bar in Fargo. Once there, Jerry meets with two young hoodlums: a loquacious, funny-looking shorter guy named Carl Showalter, and his mute sidekick, the large blond-haired, quite sinister and menacing Gaear Grimsrud. Jerry conspires to have them kidnap his rich wife for $40,000 (the same amount of money Marion stole in Psycho) and a brand new Ciera. The film’s considerable humor becomes evident in the initial meeting between Jerry and the hired thugs. By the time Jerry arrives, Carl and Grimsrud are already angry with him for arriving an hour late, while Jerry insists there’s been a simple mix-up. Almost from the second he opens his mouth, Carl manages to put Jerry in a defensive position:

Carl: I’m not gonna sit here and debate. I will say this, though: What Shep told us didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Jerry: Oh, no, it’s real sound. It’s all worked out.
Carl: You want your own wife kidnapped?
Jerry: Yah.
Carl stares. Jerry looks blankly back.
Carl: . . . You—my point is, you pay the ransom—what, eighty thousand bucks?—I mean, you give us half the ransom, forty thousand, you keep half. It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul, it doesn’t make any—
Jerry: Okay, it’s—see, it’s not me payin’ the ransom. The thing is, my wife, she’s wealthy—her dad, he’s real well off. Now, I’m in a bit of trouble—
Carl: What kind of trouble are you in, Jerry?
Jerry: Well, that’s, that’s, I’m not gonna go inta, inta—see, I just need money. Now, her dad’s real wealthy—
Carl: So why don’t you ask him for the money?
Grimsrud, the dour man who has not yet spoken, now softly puts in with a Swedish-accented voice.
Grimsrud: Or your fucking wife, you know.
Carl: Or your fucking wife, Jerry.
Jerry: Well, it’s all just part of this—they don’t know I need it, see. Okay, so there’s that. And even if they did, I wouldn’t get it. So there’s that on top, then. See, these’re personal matters.
Carl: Personal matters.
Jerry: Yah, personal matters that needn’t, uh—
Carl: Okay, Jerry. You’re tasking us to perform this mission, but you, you won’t, uh, you won’t—aw, fuck it, let’s take a look at that Ciera.[16]

The humor in the scene, of course, revolves around the reversal of roles and the way that Carl is able to turn the tables on Jerry and assume power and control of the relationship. It is also apparent that Carl and Grimsrud find it incomprehensible, even despicable, that Jerry wants to kidnap his own wife and extract ransom, which he intends to split with them. We learn important exposition, namely, that Jerry is in some kind of financial trouble and that his father-in-law is very wealthy. Carl balks at Jerry’s attempt to keep his own private life separate when he presses him for information. But the two thugs raise an important question in the minds of the audience, namely, why wouldn’t Jerry’s father-in-law and wife help him financially, especially if he’s really in trouble?

Some of our initial questions get answered when Jerry’s father-inlaw, Wade, stops over for dinner. Jerry asks Wade whether he’s had time to consider the deal. Their conversation, however, borders on farce when it turns into a repetitious play on the word “lot,” which leads to confusion rather than clarification:

Jerry: Yah, you said you’d have a think about it. I understand it’s a lot of money—
Wade: A heck of a lot. What’d you say you were gonna put there?
Jerry: A lot. It’s a limited—
Wade: I know it’s a lot.
Jerry: I mean a parking lot.
Wade: Yah, well, seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a lot—ha ha ha!
Jerry: Yah, well, it’s a chunk, but—
Wade: I had a couple lots, late fifties. Lost a lot of money. A “lot” of money.[17]

Jerry tries to pitch the project as something that would be good for Jean and Scotty, but Wade makes it very clear that his daughter and grandson are already set financially.

Wade later calls and tells Jerry that his business associate, Stan Grossman, likes Jerry’s business proposal and tells him to meet them in the afternoon. The news takes Jerry by surprise. In an effort to stave off the kidnapping, Jerry tries unsuccessfully to get in touch with Carl and Grimsrud through Shep Proudfoot, a rugged Native-American mechanic who works in the service area of the car dealership. Meanwhile tension builds between Carl and Grimsrud, as Carl tries to discuss Midwestern architecture as they approach Minneapolis. Frustrated by Grimsrud’s one-word answer to a question, he finally vents:

Carl: “No.” First thing you’ve said in the last four hours. That’s a, that’s a fountain of conversation, man. That’s a geyser. I mean, whoa, daddy, stand back, man. Shit, I’m sittin’ here driving, man, doin’ all the driving, whole fucking way from Brainerd, drivin’, tryin’ to, you know, tryin’ to chat, keep our spirits up, fight the boredom of the road, and you can’t say one fucking thing just in the way of conversation.
Grimsrud smokes, gazing out the window.
. . . Well, fuck it, I don’t have to talk either, man. See how you like it.
Carl looks at Grimsrud for a reaction.
. . . Just total fuckin’ silence. Two can play at that game, smart guy. We’ll just see how you like it . . .
He drives.
...Total silence . . .[18]

The Coens extract a great deal of humor from the juxtaposition between the talkative Carl and his near-mute partner. Carl’s criticism of Grimsrud’s conversational skills makes Carl sound more like the shortchanged wife in a bad marriage than a hardened criminal about to embark on a kidnapping. The monetary difficulty Jerry alluded to in the opening scene becomes clarified when Jerry receives a call from someone at the financial services company, demanding to have the serial numbers of the automobiles for which he received credit of $320,000.

Carl and Grimsrud go forward with the kidnapping as planned. After Jerry arrives home, he wanders upstairs and sees evidence of the struggle—the dislodged window screen and crowbar on the floor, open window, and scraps of the shower curtain still on the rings. As the camera continues to track from the crumpled curtain to the shattered window, we hear Jerry telling Wade about Jean in a series of variations. The shot of Jerry reveals that he is merely practicing his performance. He then picks up the phone, dials, and asks for Wade.

After the camera tracks down the huge statue of Paul Bunyan as Carl and Grimsrud drive by at night, we hear sounds of Jean whimpering in the back seat. Grimsrud threatens her, but a police car suddenly appears behind them. The first turning point occurs when Grimsrud shoots the trooper at approximately twenty-nine minutes, turning the kidnapping into murder. (The subsequent shooting of the witnesses four minutes later only seals the criminals’ fate.) After the comedic setup, Grimsrud’s violent rampage signals a complete shift in tone, as Jerry’s ransom scheme takes the film in an unexpected direction. As we move into the middle act, we’re introduced to the Brainerd police chief, Marge Gunderson, who is awakened by news of the triple homicide. At the murder scene, the seven months-pregnant Marge, after a brief bout of morning sickness, begins to piece together the clues, dazzling her affable but dim-witted colleague Lou with her shrewd detective work. She learns from the dead trooper’s citation book that his last ticket was for a tan Ciera with dealer plates.

Wade wants to call in the police, but Jerry convinces Stan Grossman of the need to follow the kidnappers’ ransom request. During the conversation, we learn an additional aspect of Jerry’s deception, namely, that the ransom request is actually for $1 million, not the $80,000 that he had told Carl and Grimsrud earlier. Wade wants to offer the kidnappers only half of the amount, but Jerry and Stan dissuade him. When Stan mentions Scotty, it’s clear from Jerry’s reaction that he has completely forgotten about him. When Jerry later discusses the situation with his distraught son, Scotty worries that something could go wrong and wants to call the police.

The next several scenes shift the focus from Jerry to the kidnappers and Marge’s investigation. Carl and Grimsrud take Jean to an abandoned cabin. Despite the fact that her head is covered by a black hood and her hands are tied behind her back, Jean nevertheless tries to run off. Carl chuckles as the barefoot Jean veers wildly around in the snow like a chicken without a head. After Norm brings Marge lunch at the Brainerd police station, Lou interrupts with the news that the tan Ciera has been traced to the Blue Ox, and that the two men registered there also had “company.”

Marge interviews the two hookers who describe Carl as funny-looking and not circumcised and Grimsrud as the Marlboro Man. One of them also remembers that the two were on their way to Minneapolis. As Jean sits in a chair with her hands bound and Grimsrud impassively smokes a cigarette, Carl has a fit due to poor television reception. Meanwhile, after turning in for the night, Marge is awakened by a phone call from Mike Yanagita, who has seen her on the news. Jerry gets a call from Carl who tells him that circumstances have changed—“blood has been shed”—and demands more money. Each time Carl alludes to the murders in Brainerd, Jerry responds, “The heck d’ya mean?” Carl insists he’s coming to town tomorrow, and now wants the entire $80,000 ransom money. Marge presses forward with the investigation by interviewing Shep and questioning Jerry, before meeting Mike Yanagita.

The second turning point occurs at seventy minutes, as Wade heads off to meet with the kidnappers on the top level of the Dayton-Radisson parking ramp. When Wade shows up instead of Jerry, Carl has had enough. He shoots the arrogant older man, but winds up taking a bullet in the face. Carl grabs the ransom money, throws it in the car, and drives off wildly down the ramp, just missing Jerry’s vehicle. His face all bloody, Carl demands that the attendant open the gate. The scene cuts to the rooftop lot, where Jerry dumps Wade’s body into the trunk of his car. As Jerry approaches the exit, he sees the broken gate as well as the attendant lying dead in the booth. After Jerry arrives home, Scotty tells him that Stan has called twice, but Jerry, clearly dazed, just sits in the foyer.

Since Jerry has demanded $1 million from Wade rather than the $80,000 he has promised to split with the hired kidnappers, the second turning point represents the final unraveling of Jerry’s plan, not only because Wade gets killed, but because Carl ends up with the $1 million rather than Jerry. That Carl gets shot will also lead to a confrontation with Grimsrud. If I’m right in my segmentation of the structure of Fargo, the first act would be twenty-nine minutes in length, the second act would be forty-one minutes, and the third act would total twenty-four minutes, since the actual film is approximately ninety-four minutes long, not including the final credits.

Just as Jerry attempted to cheat the two kidnappers, Carl tries to swindle Grimsrud. He takes $80,000 of the ransom money and hides the rest of the $1 million in a snowy field. Marge learns through a friend that Mike Yanagita has fabricated the story about Linda Cook-sey dying of leukemia and discovers that he had been stalking her for almost a year. This news leaves Marge dumbstruck. After a drive-through breakfast at Hardee’s, she makes a surprise visit at the car dealership to question Jerry once again. While insisting the whole time that he’s cooperating with her, Jerry loses patience with Marge’s questions. She tells him, “Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me. I’m just doing my job here.” After Marge asks to speak with Wade, Jerry agrees to take a hand count of the vehicles, but, as Marge watches, Jerry drives off. When Carl shows up at the cabin, Jean lies dead on the floor—a victim of Grimsrud’s rage. Carl gives Grimsrud his share of the money, but the two argue over the Ciera. Grimsrud wants to split it, but Carl insists that it’s his reward for getting shot and starts to head off. Grimsrud rushes outside after Carl and, in Paul Bunyan–like fashion, suddenly whacks him in the neck with an axe.

Figure 3.3. Jerry at the parking ramp

The climax occurs shortly afterward, as Marge happens to see the Ciera at a cabin on Moose Lake. She proceeds to sneak up on Grim-srud, as he is disposing of Carl’s body in a wood chipper. As Grimsrud pushes down on a human leg, which sticks up from the chipper, Marge orders him to surrender. Grimsrud tries to escape across the snow-covered field, but her second shot wounds him in the leg. As Grimsrud sits handcuffed in the backseat of the police car, Marge, like a disappointed parent, chides the impassive criminal: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know.” The anticlimactic resolution shows Jerry’s arrest in a shabby motel outside of Bismarck, North Dakota. Meanwhile Norm and Marge sit in bed watching television. Norm’s rendition of a mallard has been selected to be on the three-cent stamp. Although he’s disappointed, Marge reassures him. The two express their love for each other as they snuggle together. Norm rests his hand on her bloated stomach. He says, “Two more months,” a line which Marge repeats.

In his book Good Scripts, Bad Scripts, screenwriter Thomas Pope uses Fargo as one of twenty-five practical examples for teaching scriptwriting craft. Following the classical paradigm, Pope analyzes Fargo in terms of a three-act structure, but his analysis of the film’s structure is quite different from mine.[19] He writes, “The structure of Fargo takes a number of risks, particularly in its first-act structure, its late introduction of the protagonist, and its third-act break.”[20] Pope locates the first turning point as the kidnapping: “As for the act break, it comes naturally when the wife is kidnapped. Until then, nothing that happens is inevitable; after that, everything is inevitable.”[21] It’s not the kidnapping, however, that makes subsequent events inevitable. It is only after Grimsrud murders the trooper that everything has changed and there is no turning back; for this reason, I believe it would be more accurate to consider this to be the first turning point.

“The second act is unusual,” Pope continues, “in that it introduces Marge, the protagonist, about half an hour into the movie.”[22] According to where Pope places the turning point, this would be thirteen minutes into his second act. Also, as I have argued previously, compared to Jerry, Marge has little to do with the plot other than to follow leads rather mechanically. Pope attempts to answer this by claiming that while the first turning point occurs at a “plot juncture,” the second one happens as a “thematic juncture.”[23] He argues that the thematic event occurs when Marge learns from her friend that Mike Yanagita lied to her both about being married as well as about his wife dying from leukemia. Pope sees this scene as paralleling Jerry’s contemplation of his eventual fate, as he sits disconsolately in the foyer after returning from the parking ramp. He writes, “Thus the dual revelations by Marge and Jerry, where each sees into the hidden workings of society and of the human soul, serve as the dividing line between the simple plot complications of the second act and the moral collisions of the third.”[24] While Pope’s point is certainly insightful, such thematic inflections do not seem to have enough impetus, either singularly or combined, to serve as the second turning point. Rather, what changes things for Jerry as well as for the overall plot is Wade’s bravado attempt to stand up to the kidnappers, which pushes the film inexorably into its third and final act.

Figure 3.4. Marge fires at Grimsrud

I bring up Pope’s analysis of Fargo less to quibble with his interpretation than to demonstrate how unusual Fargo is in terms of its structure, as well as to reiterate how ambiguous the film can be in terms of determining its protagonist. Since Fargo clearly strays from the classical paradigm, it is precisely the kind of script that might not make it past an initial reader at one of the studios. The elements that differentiate Fargo as a script could easily be translated into flaws by anyone locked into the conventional paradigm.

Fargo succeeds largely as a result of its unorthodox structure, zany characters, and black humor. On a fundamental level, Fargo has a lot in common with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Beneath this placidly white surface of perpetual smiles, good-naturedness, and cheerful small talk lie vicious greed and repressed violence capable of spawning the likes of an Ed Gein (on whom Norman Bates is modeled) or a Jeffrey Dahmer, to mention just two of the more well-known Midwestern serial killers. The broad satire and comic humor mask a horrific violence. Examples include scenes in which Grimsrud splatters the blood of the trooper on Carl’s face and then slays innocent bystanders, Shep interrupts Carl’s romp with a hooker to assault him savagely, Carl shoots Wade in the head only to get a return bullet in the face, Jerry’s wife gets her skull broken for screaming, and Carl ends up with his foot sticking out of a wood chipper.

Everyone seems to be fair game for the Coen brothers’ gruesome wit. Shep, on probation for narcotics abuse, has a violent streak that parallels Grimsrud’s. He not only beats Carl, but also the African-American bystander, as well as the hooker whom he chases down the hall. Even the Asian-American high school friend of Marge, who mimics the same yahoo accent as the rest of the locals, attempts to seduce Marge by making up a pathetic story about his wife dying of leukemia. And the locals, who waddle through the snowy, barren landscape like penguins, are portrayed as innocuous dimwits, incapable of distinguishing between what’s important and what’s not, which makes them utterly unreliable as police informants. Even the good-natured Marge has to raise an eyebrow at their obtuseness.

In terms of character, Jerry and Marge are complete opposites. While Marge is both pregnant and happily married to Norm, Jerry resents his wife and kid because their financial problems are taken care of, whereas his are not. Working at his father-in-law’s car dealership, Jerry has become adept at presenting a cheery facade to the public while trying to pawn off TruCoat. He provides a striking contrast to the genuinely sincere Marge, who lets Mike Yanagita down in the gentlest possible way and politely corrects Lou’s poor detective work. Marge represents a parody of the noir genre’s cynical detective. She lectures Grimsrud about life’s virtues in the patrol car after he’s been caught. Marge later confides to Norm as they watch televison in bed, “Heck, we’re doin’ pretty good.” Marge is largely satisfied by the simple pleasures in life, in contrast to Jerry, whose get-rich schemes mask his brooding dissatisfaction with his lowly status.

The power that comes from being able to manipulate language plays a big role in Fargo, adding a conceptual element to the dialogue of the film. As has already been mentioned, the good-natured verbal inarticulateness of the locals sets them up to be victims. But other characters in the film, besides Carl and Grimsrud, are defined by the ability or inability to use language. For instance, Jerry uses his verbal skills to dupe customers and stave off creditors, but he begins to stumble and stammer in the presence of the fast-talking Carl and his powerful and arrogant father-in-law, Wade. Mike Yanagita spins a tale of deceit that fools Marge completely. When she finds out that Mike has lied to her, it affects her more personally than the gruesome murders she’s investigating because it introduces evil into the small talk of everyday conversation, which for the people of Brainerd, circumscribes their world. Even Shep, the Native-American outsider, will only vouch for Grimsrud and not Carl, because he remains tied to his direct experience. Shep can only say about Carl, “Never heard of him. Don’t vouch for him.”

Language, despite its considerable power to control and manipulate people and situations, turns out to be no match for brute violence. Grimsrud’s muteness, or inability to verbalize what he feels, represents a repressed and very different sort of absolute power, which is symbolized by the oversized statue of Paul Bunyan that looms outside the city limits of Brainerd. Brute violence ends all discussions or differences of opinion for Grimsrud, as in the case of the trooper, the young witnesses who happen to drive by, or Carl, who insists on taking the Ciera as compensation for getting shot while picking up the ransom. The same is true for Shep, who does not confront Carl with words, but with unbridled force in the scene where he interrupts Carl’s sexual encounter with a hooker.

Marge goes about her investigative work of this horrific criminal violence with a certain bemused acceptance, as if it is a no more unpleasant task than bringing Norm a bag of night crawlers. But her remarks to Grimsrud after his capture suggest that she has difficulty understanding why anyone would behave this way. And while Marge retreats back into the contented safety of her marriage to Norm and the prospect of their baby at the conclusion of Fargo, on the basis of what has already transpired in the film, there is no mistaking the bitter irony of the Coens’s ending. In a classical narrative, the ending stems from the original dramatic premise, but that is not what happens here. Although Fargo seems to parody the kind of happy ending we might find in a Hollywood film, its focus on Marge rather than on Jerry is actually a direct result of its narrative construction, which involves the subtle shift in protagonists that has occurred during the course of the film.

[1] Linda Aronson, Screenwriting Updated: New (and Conventional) Ways of Writing for the Screen (Los Angeles: Silman-James, 2001), 61.

[2] See Eddie Robson, Coen Brothers (London: Virgin Books, 2003), 160.

[3] Ethan Cohen quoted in Robson, 163.

[4] Ethan and Joel Coen, Fargo (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996), 75.
[5] Richard Walter, Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing (New York: Plume, 1986), 48.
[6] Syd Field, The Screenwriter’s Workbook (New York: Dell Publishing, 1984), 141.
[7] John Egan, “The ’90’s New Wave,” scr(i)pt, 3, 6 (November/December 1997): 18.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 19, 61.

[10] See Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: Regan Books, 1997), 226–232.

[11] Ibid., 137.

[12] Amanda Sheahan Wells, Psycho (London: York Press, 2001), 34.

[13] Alfred Hitchcock quoted in François Truffaut, Hitchcock, rev. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 269.

[14] Ethan Coen, “Introduction,” in Ethan and Joel Coen, x.

[15] Thomas Goetz, “Tongue Twisting,” Village Voice (12 March 1996): 46.

[16] Ethan and Joel Coen, 6–7.

[17] Ibid., 10–11.

[18] Ibid., 20.

[19] My analysis of the structure of Fargo also differs significantly from Linda Seger’s. She writes: “At the first turning point, Marge gets a phone call about a murder. She begins the case. At the second turning point the police hear that something strange is going on at the lake. This leads Marge to the lake, where she finds one of the bad guys and the body parts of another.” See Seger’s Advanced Screenwriting: Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level (Los Angeles: Silman-James, 2003), 83.

[20] Thomas Pope, Good Scripts, Bad Scripts (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998), 103.

[21] Ibid., 104.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 105.

[24] Ibid., 106.