Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Characters We ♥: Marge Gunderson (Fargo, 1996) [Spoilers]

© MGM Home Entertainment | Source: Popsugar
Your average cop thriller usually features a smart and intuitive male lead. His task is to solve the crime at hand, and, in passing, save the damsel-in-distress female supporting character. In your average cop thriller, women conventionally are helpless, emotionally shattered and dependent on assistance. Now, Fargo by the Coen brothers might not be what you would consider “your average cop thriller”. The film uses the absurd, dark comedy and neo-noir elements; but what really makes it stand out among its company of modern crime films, is the lead character Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). A female cop. Seven months pregnant. Solving multiple homicides. All on her own.
“I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.”  -- Marge Gunderson

In the movie, Jerry Lundegaard plans to have his wife abducted by two rogues in order to demand ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. When the scheme goes awry and the two criminals leave a trace of bodies throughout the Minnesotan landscape, police chief Marge is brought in to investigate the homicides. Heavily pregnant, good-hearted and determined, she sets out to apprehend the ones responsible.

Even though Marge’s first appearance only occurs one third into the film, she can pretty much be regarded as the centre of the narrative. I’d argue that her plot functions as a kind of coming-of-age story. Her journey from slightly naïve, gullible woman to someone who comes to realise the grim, vicious mechanisms of reality, is gripping and, for me, even delivers a feeling of heartbreak. As someone who tends to only see the best in others, she is stunned by the fact that people are willing to lie, steal and commit heinous crimes for the most trivial reasons. Disillusioned by the outside world, she returns home to her loving husband. Her life might be simple – slightly bourgeois even – but I have the feeling that after the Lundegaard case she cherishes her everyday surroundings much more than she did before.

However, despite all her initial naïveté, Marge never comes across as a simpleton. While she always acts overly nice and friendly to others, she is still portrayed as a highly effective police officer. Her work is precise and observant. When investigating crime scenes, she tends to come to all the right conclusions. Her persistent and target-oriented nature makes her follow the correct clues and, eventually, leads her to the resolution of the case. Since she herself has confidence in her abilities, she doesn’t shy away from calling out her male colleague on his wrong police work. It’s rather refreshing to see how self-consciously she navigates her way through a male-dominated job domain, and how she is respected for it by her fellow officers as well as her husband. 

”I've always told [Joel and Ethan Coen] they write great women, but that there's always something missing from them; they fall just short. But Marge doesn't. She has an inner life that is not immediately evident but which keeps revealing itself. As normal as she seems, there's something about her that people want to know more about because they don't fully understand her.”   -- Frances McDormand (Interview with The New York Times, March 1996)

Fargo really does a wonderful job demonstrating how Marge’s gender doesn’t get in the way of her doing her job. She is a happy mother-to-be and an efficient cop all at the same time. Pregnancy hormones, usually regarded as a weakness, only show in her huge appetite throughout the film and a brief episode of morning sickness. Her mental capacities are unfettered, her logic and instinct intact. Her baby bump never becomes an obstacle or a form of restraint for her. In spite of her condition, she isn’t afraid of confronting a man who she just witnessed disposing of a human body in a wood chipper. Like a pro, she immobilises him with a shot to his thigh and arrests him, proving that womanhood and badass-ness can very well go hand in hand.

Frances McDormand’s performance is critically-acclaimed and Oscar-awarded – rightly so. In accordance with the caricature-esque tone of the film, she revels in the “yah-s” and “oh-jeez-s” of the Minnesotan accent. With her exaggerated smile and friendliness she not only delivers comedy and satire to the point, she also renders Marge instantly likeable. And what’s more, underneath all the superficial niceness lies a complexity which she perfectly manages to embrace with subtle hints. Her Marge is competent, steadfast and brave, yet shaken by the horrors of human behaviour. She’s credulous, but not afraid of making amends for her naïveté. And yet, in midst of all the levelheadedness, McDormand delivers a perfectly subtle moment of emotionality near the end of the film. In a short monologue, she tries to understand the motivation behind the crimes – and fails. In a film that mostly works with absurdity and ridiculousness, McDormand manages to strike a human chord.

With her ordinary appearance, Marge Gunderson doesn’t seem fit for a murder case, and yet she is. She’s a fine example of a complex, engaging female lead in a genre that, sadly, often lacks exactly those. Appearing as a rather unconventional advocate for female strength and willpower, she might be an unlikely heroine, but, still, that’s what she is: a heroine.

No comments:

Post a Comment