Before Picasso went Cubist, he knew the techniques of the old masters. Before the Coen Brothers became one of the more adventurous commercial filmmakers out there, they knew their genre and structure. Blood Simple is tight as a drum when it comes to plotting. But as they got more confident, they began to experiment with form, character, and structure.
Let’s take their Oscar-winning Fargo from 1996. Like their first film, it’s a crime story where a plan goes terribly awry. But in terms of structure, we are a long way from classic noir. This is the first film we’ve looked at that refutes the three quarter structure that so many films follow. How and why it does that is what we’ll get into.
If Fargo is about a kidnapping gone wrong, then the structure of Fargo is a noir film “gone wrong.”
The film is a zippy 98 minutes, which means our quarter should fall at: 24.5, 49, and 73.5. What happens at these markers?
To recap, Fargo is about a desperate and luckless car salesman Jerry (William H. Macy) who hires two men Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife. His plan is to hit up his rich father-in-law (Harve Presnell) for the cash, then pocket most of it when he gets his wife back. That plan goes very wrong almost immediately, leaving several dead people in its wake. In steps our hero Marge (Frances McDormand), a very pregnant sheriff, who goes on to solve the case.
For Fargo’s first quarter, we come to the scene where Jerry returns home after his wife has been kidnapped. The aftermath shows more violence than he was expecting, and it ends with him rehearsing just how he is going to sound on the phone when he calls his father-in-law. (Interestingly, his father-in-law will also go through a similar rehearsal when he’s off to drop the money off with the kidnappers).
This is not an untypical scene to end a first act. Despite Jerry having second thoughts about the kidnapping and being unable to stop his plan, this would be the scene where the ransom plot would kick in.
But it doesn’t. By the time we get to the middle scene we have been introduced to Marge, who has found the bodies left by Carl and Gaear by the side of the road as they were heading to their forest hideout.
The middle scene deliberately throws us off and feels like a indulgent side story: Marge gets a call in the middle of the night by Mike Yanagita, an old high school friend who wants to meet up with her when she travels south to the Twin Cities. This meeting, later in the film, will be framed by two visits to Jerry’s car dealership.
By the third quarter we get this scene, alluded to in this dashboard shot. It’s where Officer Olsen (Cliff Rakerd) questions a bartender who story of a rude customer will lead the police to the lakeside hideout. In a typical police narrative, it would be Marge who conducts this interview, but instead it’s one of her officers.
This clue sends the film towards its conclusion, for sure. But again, it isn’t a typical “dark night of the soul.” Marge, as the main detective, never comes to a dead end in her investigations. Nor does she ever find herself in danger. In fact, she proceeds from clue to clue very well, and her main suspect pretty much outs himself (then escapes in a cloud of icy guilt). She also comes across the kidnapper’s stolen car by chance, and just happens to find Gaear caught red handed and without his gun.
This should not work, if one looks at the way the film is plotted. Yet, of course it works, because it proceeds–like the Coen’s Burn After Reading–as a comedy of errors, with almost a documentary tone. The majority of criminals are stupid–that’s why they get caught.
The “why” of playing with accepted structure is in reflecting the realist nature of its setting. The “hero” arrives late, and she enlists the help of her officers to help her solve the case.
The Mike Yanagita scene, whether you go along with this column’s four-act structure or Syd Field’s three-act one, seems a mistake. Why would this scene, which kicks off a very small subplot, be the centerpiece to the film?
One reason: Mike’s duplicity, which Marge learns about the next day, makes her think about other innocent seeming men–i.e. Jerry. And that sends her back to Jerry’s dealership for a second interview. In interview, the Coen Brothers never admit to such. They refer to the Yanagita subplot as extraneous. But I think they’re pulling our leg here. Mike is not important to the plot, but he’s important to the tone of the film, and Marge’s minor character arc.
If Fargo is a portrait of Minnesota’s stoic subcultures–one that the Coens knew very well growing up–then its character arc will be subtle, but it will be there. Marge learns a little bit about the dark side of human nature, and she goes to be even more in love with her husband. (Who, by the way, earns a little victory by the end of the film too, when his painting wins a competition to be on a stamp.)
Twenty years on, that final scene, which felt silly at the time to me, now feels poignant. Marge consoles Norm, who is down that his winning painting will only be on a 3 cent stamp. No, she says, people need 3 cent stamps all the time, when they raise the postal rate. It’s a very Midwestern end to a bloody adventure.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Not wanting to cut legs off a crab to make it fit into a box, I wondered if the film is divided into fifths. That would take away the importance of the middle, but who knows really how the Coens–who edit their films–think?
First fifth: Gaear realizing that Jerry’s wife is hiding in the shower
Second fifth: Marge and her partner arriving at the roadside crime scene
Third fifth: Marge questioning Jerry for the first time
Fourth fifth: Marge on the phone in the Twin Cities, realizing that Mike lied to her.
Although the structure of fifths seems closer to a procedural than F3Q’s theory, I’m not going to lean either way. In future columns, we’ll explore more Coen Brother films, and see whether Fargo is an outlier, or the beginning of their experimental period.
Written, directed and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen