Marge Gunderson, American Hero: ‘Fargo’ at 20

When Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo slipped into 36 theaters on March 8, 1996, the small film was carrying some heavy baggage. Two years earlier, the Coens had graduated from medium-budget, medium-profit critical darlings like Raising Arizona and Barton Fink to the ginormous Hudsucker Proxy, a $25 million screwball comedy shepherded by super-producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Predator). It was a notorious flop, barely returning 10% of its budget; it could’ve ended the careers of less tenacious filmmakers. Instead, the Coens regrouped. They scaled back, with a modestly budgeted ($7 million, their lowest since Raising Arizona) effort that returned them to familiar territory, its script fusing the kidnapping plot and broad humor of Arizona with the tough, neo-noir crime elements of their debut picture Blood Simple.

But they supplemented those familiar elements with something that was lacking in the otherwise entertaining and wildly underrated Hudsucker (and, arguably, the films before it): humanity. For all their ingenious plotting, smashing period details, and whiz-bang wind-up toy camerawork, characters sometimes seemed a secondary concern for the Coens. And that’s what made Fargo one of the most impressive comebacks in movie history (grossing nearly ten times its budget worldwide, and earning rhapsodic reviews, two Oscars, and five more nominations): not only did the Coens return from the brink, but they gave us one of the most memorable (if not the most memorable) characters in modern cinema.

Her name is Marge Gunderson, and she was played by Frances McDormand, in a performance that won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actress. McDormand made her film debut in the Coens’ Blood Simple, which introduced her to husband Joel. But she hadn’t played a lead for them since; after a memorable supporting role in Raising Arizona, she’d only appeared in brief, uncredited cameos (or not at all) in the films that followed. She kept busy, but with rare exceptions – an Oscar-nominated supporting role in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, the female lead in their pal Sam Raimi’s first superhero movie, Darkman – she rarely found a role worthy of her talents. So the Coens wrote her one.

Frances McDormand in "Fargo"
Frances McDormand in “Fargo”

Marge doesn’t appear until the 33-minute mark of the 98-minute Fargo (like Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, she proves the designation of lead actor is less about screen time than presence), with the fake-kidnapping plot and its unplanned triple homicide well underway. The good-natured police chief “from up Brainerd,” she’s seven months pregnant; she famously pauses her remarkably accurate crime scene walkthrough because “I just think I’m gonna barf,” and spends nearly as much of the film pursuing the killers as she does pursuing sustenance for her voracious pregnancy appetite. Arby’s and Hardee’s are name-checked, and while investigating in “the Twin Cities,” she ends a call to her local police contact with a request: “Would you happen to know a good place for lunch in the downtown area? … The Radisson… Oh yah, is it reasonable?”

She’s probably looking for something along the lines of the all-you-can-eat buffet where she and husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch, great) enjoy a hearty lunch before she heads out; having spent a fair amount of time in such establishments in the Midwest, I can assure you that the Coens, Minnesota natives, get every detail right, from the red food markers to the piped-in music to the faux-oak decorative scheme. Much of the oft-repeated criticism that the Coens make fun of their characters originates with this film – and it usually comes from well-intentioned coastal intellectuals, so I’m not buying it. They know this world, and any mockery is both gentle and allowed; it’s the old “I can mock of my brother, because he’s family” argument.

Besides, the setting and vernacular of the film give it a marvelous specificity, which separates it from the typical kidnapping/crime caper (the Coens’ or anyone else’s), and whatever fun they’re having at the expense of their home state, its people, and its vernacular is offset by their affection for Marge. She’s “Minnesota nice,” sure, but also a sharp investigator; in her interrogations of Shep Proudfoot or Jerry Lundergaard, she’s a “good cop” who not only doesn’t have a “bad cop,” but doesn’t need one.

Frances McDormand in "Fargo"
Frances McDormand in “Fargo”

“I know you don’t wanna be an accessory to something like that,” she assures Proudfoot, with a big, warm smile. “So ya think ya might remember who those folks were that called ya?” And she calls up that same grin when she returns to Lundergaard’s office, all sugar and honey as she turns the screws: “It’d be quite a coincidence if they weren’t, ya know, connected!” She never loses her cool – and when he does, it’s the closest she ever comes to blowing her top. “Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me,” she replies, calmly. “I’m just doing my job here.” You get the sense that his rudeness is as offensive to her as his crime or his lies.

And that’s because Marge is, above all, kind and polite. One of her most frequently quoted lines, which comes early on, also tells us much about her character: while briefing her on the investigation, sweet and maybe not-too-bright deputy Lou (Bruce Bohne) explains that the car they’re looking for had “DLR” plates, so they’ve put out an APB for any cars whose plates begin with those letters. She gently replies, “I’m not sure that I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou,” and proceeds to explain that “DLR” means dealer plates. It’s not even what she says – a line that many of us have reappropriated into a smarmy rejoinder – but how she says it, almost confidentially, as if she doesn’t want to embarrass him. And when he replies, “Oh jeez,” and realizes the mistake, she softens the moment with a little joke.

She has a similar moment with Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), an old high school friend who she reconnects with while in the Twin Cities. Early in their meeting, he tries to move around to her side of the booth, easing his arm up around her shoulders; she immediately replies, “No, why don’tcha sit over there, I prefer that.” He slides back over, immediately apologetic – but she dismisses those apologies, and tries to save his embarrassment with an explanation: “Oh no, no, just so I can see ya, don’t have to turn my neck!”

Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch in "Fargo"
Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch in “Fargo”

The Mike Yanagita scene was a puzzler to some audiences (and critics) when Fargo was released; in the midst of this crime story, what was up with this weird little character digression, which seemed to take the story nowhere? But, as Roger Ebert noted, it serves as an interlude between her two interviews with Jerry – and her discovery of Mike’s deception (the next morning, a mutual friend tells her the tear-soaked story of his wife’s death was a total lie) makes her realize the danger of taking people at face value. That sends her back to the car dealership, where she cracks the case.

All that’s left is the tidying up: finding the tan Sierra while investigating the “loudmouth,” bravely waddling in to take on Peter Stormare’s Gaear at the wood-chipper, putting him down on the second shot, a bullet to the leg that allows her to take him in alive. And as she does so, the overriding note of her little speech from the front seat is not one of fury or victory, but disappointment; she notes that people have died, homes have been destroyed, “and for what? A little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, ya know. Don’tcha know that?”

There is. There’s home, and family (“two more months” until the baby comes, the last lines of the film), and love; Margie’s Norm, who insisted on getting up at the crack of dawn to make her eggs (“You gotta eat a breakfast, Marge”), got the three-cent stamp, which she assures him is a very big deal. She’s supportive and loving: “I’m so proud of ya, Norm… Heck, Norm, ya know, we’re doin’ pretty good.” And then he tells her, simply, “I love ya, Margie.” By that point, so do we.

Fargo is streaming free on Amazon Prime and available for rental via Amazon, iTunes, and other providers.