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‘Fargo’ and the Rise of Frances McDormand

Revisiting the Oscar-nominated lead of ‘Nomadland’s’ first Oscar win 25 years later.
by Bill Ryan
April 23, 2021
‘Fargo’ and the Rise of Frances McDormand

I vividly remember seeing Fargo in the theater—25 years ago, if you can believe it—and, as I was shuffling out the door, hearing someone in front of me say something along the lines of “Boy, they really made those people look like idiots.”

“Those people” being Minnesotans and North Dakotans, the thick-accented characters who inhabit the world of that film. This sentiment was echoed around the same time by actor-director Edward Burns, who suggested the Coen brothers were playing an especially brutal scene—the murder of a state trooper by dead-eyed psychopath Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare)—for laughs. This is such a poor reading of that scene that it could only be arrived at by someone who went into the theater having already accepted the received wisdom regarding Joel and Ethan Coen and how the Minnesota natives supposedly think of their characters: they hate them, they like to torture them, the filmmakers are cold and distant and lacking in humanity, etc. That this line of thinking was applied even to Fargo, which is at least as much about goodness as it is evil, is surprising.

But, of course, the perception of what the Coens are all about, and what they do, has changed a lot over the years, and Fargo had a lot to do with it. The film would go on to become, relative to the Coen brothers’ previous films, something of a hit, and racked up significant Oscar wins: Best Actress for Frances McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for the Coens. McDormand played Marge Gunderson, the very pregnant chief of police for Brainerd, MN, the county in which three murders have taken place. For the uninitiated, those murders occur after Gaear and his partner, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), kidnap Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrüd). Jean is the wife of car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who is behind the plot to kidnap his wife, hoping that his father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay the ransom to get his daughter back. Everything goes horribly wrong, and the gentle, unassuming Minnesota and North Dakota towns where the film takes place see an alarming number of dead bodies—those of the innocent and guilty alike—pile up.

Fargo is a brutally violent film. This description could be affixed to three of the five movies the Coens made before Fargo, and to several they’ve made since. And as “black comedy” is a style with which the Coens are familiar, they have now and then turned violent death into a joke—see especially Burn After Reading (2008), easily their meanest, most black-hearted film. (It’s also very good, and very, very funny.) But only one of Fargo’s many bloody scenes is meant to inspire laughter, and it does not involve the deaths of any innocents. Rather, it’s the infamous moment when Gaear is feeding his newly-killed partner Carl into a woodchipper. It’s such an extreme moment, and Gaear looks so absurd in his long johns and giant winter hat, that the horror of it finally tips over into comedy. (It helps that Carl had it coming.) Otherwise, the horror of the violence stops, simply, at horror. This goes for the off-screen violence as well, such as the death of the parking garage attendant whose last act on Earth is to greet Carl, his killer, with smiling politeness, or the chillingly casual way we learn that Jean has been murdered.

Yet the belief that the Coens were mocking these innocents persists. This is largely because the film’s heroes, and the victims they encounter along the way, live in a somewhat isolated part of the country, and an environment that perhaps many in the audience would not themselves choose to inhabit. Worse still, they have thick accents! And certain regional accents are still considered by some people to be indicators of low intelligence. This is doubly true if the accented also use colloquialisms that we ourselves do not use (e.g., “Don’tcha know”). So, if anyone who doesn’t have such an accent makes a movie populated by characters who do, this must be an act of mockery, even (perhaps especially) if the un-accented are natives of the accented region. What’s lost in this reading is the fact that two of the maybe four characters in Fargo who do not speak like most of the citizens of Fargo and Brainerd are merciless killers.

Marge, who perhaps has the thickest accent, is, of course, not a merciless killer. As I mentioned earlier, McDormand won an Oscar for her performance here; she would win an Oscar for Best Actress again for 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and on April 25she may win a third for Chloe Zhao’s acclaimed (though somewhat, and surprisingly, divisive) Nomadland. Each performance is quite different. As Fern in Nomadland, McDormand gives a completely unadorned performance, blending in effortlessly with the many non-professional actors who make up most of Nomandland’s cast. The film focuses on her only because it doesn’t happen to focus on one of the other members of this small community of nomads. In Three Billboards, McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, an angry working-class woman seeking justice for her murdered daughter. McDormand is by turns raging and embittered or tender and empathetic. Her performance gives off a sense of exhaustion at having to feel all these different things, all the time, every day.

In Fargo, however, McDormand goes broad. She has an impressive range, and her talent is too often taken for granted. This is odd, given her various successes over the course of a long career and the fact that she is capable of doing almost anything. As Marge, she (and the Coens) use the character’s natural and genuine sunniness against the audience, to make them doubt her abilities. She’s been compared to Columbo, Peter Falk’s classic TV detective character whose criminal prey mistook his lumpy appearance and distracted way of talking for incompetence, and in fact Fargo is structured a bit like an episode of that show: Marge doesn’t even show up until about halfway through, after the kidnapping and first three murders have occurred. Crucially, McDormand plays Marge as naturally intelligent, focused, so used to the difficult job she has to do that in the midst of a multiple murder investigation, when her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) shows up at her office bearing a bag of Arby’s, she brightens at the break in routine. Yet she is also someone in the process of learning. Each case is different, and she knows that. So while her initial interview with Jerry Lundegaard ends with the car salesman putting one over on her, a subsequent experience with a random acquaintance from her past—I’m referring of course to the famous scene between Marge and Mike Yanagita (Steve Park)—reminds her of the capacity human beings have to lie, and that nothing should be taken at face value.

Of course, what matters most in Fargo is the ending, after Marge has discovered Gaear putting Carl into the woodchipper, and arrested him. As she drives them from the wilderness of the cabin where Gaear and Carl were hiding, Marge talks to him. McDormand delivers a monologue that contains some of the finest, most beautiful writing of the Coen brothers’ career. Marge’s previous easy-going professionalism has dissipated, one presumes, because finding Jean Lundegaard dead on the cabin floor was finally one horror too many. She says:

“So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”

But none of this registers with Gaear. He’s as thick and morally blank as ever, only noticing the giant Paul Bunyan statue slide by outside the car window, as the audience remembers that he killed Carl with an axe.

In Fargo’s final moments, with Marge and Norm home in bed, looking forward to the birth of their first child, McDormand plays Marge as a woman who is trying to forget what she has just experienced, because she can’t do anything about the state of things other than what she’s already done. It’ll have to be enough. McDormand’s eyes, tired smile, and warm voice communicate that despite everything, not everything is evil, not everyone is cruel and violent. That part of the world is not the everyday. This, at home, is.

“Heck, Norm,” she says as they drift off. “You know, we’re doin’ pretty good.”

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is the writer and sole proprietor of the blog The Kind of Face You Hate. He can be found on Twitter at @faceyouhate.