The Review/Feature/

Marge Gunderson: Feminist Hero

The women of the Coen Brothers' films don't want your money

by
May 12, 2016

Near the end of Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo (1996), Brainerd's intrepid police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) comes across petty criminal Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) trying to dispose of evidence by feeding it through a woodchipper. The fact that the material in question is the body of his former colleague Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) sets up a splendidly grotesque visual joke – she's literally caught the guy red-handed. It also signifies on a deeper level. Beneath the loud, whirring sounds of the machine, the Coens serve up a perverse vision of renewal, as if the innards dribbling out of the metal vent are somehow fertilizing the hard, frozen ground below.

Death permeates Fargo's universe. Yet, Marge and her seven-months-pregnant belly represent an implacable life force – one that can staunch the spatter of blood against white snow. Gaear has been presented as an unstoppable force, menacing Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrüd) during her abduction, murdering a young male police officer at a nighttime traffic stop en-route to his hideout and then running down and killing the witnesses to the crime. Finally, he fatally attacks Carl with an axe after a disagreement about how to split their ill-gotten gains. When Marge appears and points to the badge on her sheriff's cap, he runs, and is easily cut down to size by a well-placed gunshot to the calf muscle. Amazingly, the lethal hulk falls at Marge's feet.

An avatar of female authority and powerfully heightened by her dual status as a wife and expectant mother, Fargo’s Marge Gunderson casts a long shadow over the modern pop-cultural landscape. She's one of the most iconic American movie characters of all time. The casting of McDormand in what became her Oscar-winning role was to some extent a fait accompli; the actress had been appearing in the Coens' films since 1984, the same year that she married elder brother Joel and starred in Blood Simple. In a way, the climax of Fargo echoes the creepy showdown of the earlier film. That’s when McDormand's Abby holds her ground against the villainous private eye Visser (M. Emmett Walsh), shooting him down in self-defence as he stalks her through an empty apartment.

That Abby is the last woman standing in a modern film noir is surely significant; the genre touchstones the Coens are riffing on typically kill off their femme fatales before the final reel. However, her victory is far from total. In the final shots of the film, she’s less triumphant than confused. “I ain't afraid of you, Marty,” she snarls sitting in the dark at Visser, who is hidden on the other side of the wall, laughing at the irony of the situation. The detective dies for his client's sins, and Abby – who's never met him – is merely fate's instrument.

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Yet, Marge Gunderson is unmistakably given the last word in Fargo's fable of twisted, toxic masculinity. White-collar crook Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is swallowed up in the morass of moral and ethical compromise, as surely as the goons he hired to kidnap his wife in order to secretly extract a small fortune from his arrogant, withholding, deep-pocketed father-in-law. “There's more to life than a little bit of money,” Marge softly chides Gaear as he sits handcuffed in the back of her police cruiser. (A great existential moment: he looks at a statue of Paul Bunyan by the side of the road and dimly recognizes himself as the towering figure swinging the axe.) She prods him further in Fargo’s iconic North Dakotan accent: “Don't you know that?” Gaer's silence speaks volumes. He doesn't know that, nor do any of the other blood simple men in Fargo, none of whom get to lay hands on the money that's caused all of the havoc in the first place.

Ransoms are commonplace in Coen Brothers films from Blood Simple and The Big Lebowski to The Man Who Wasn't There and Hail, Caesar!, where cold, hard, Hollywood cash is sacrificed so that Communist turncoat Channing Tatum can save his beloved lapdog Engels (that's your cue for a symposium, poli-sci undergrads). Speaking broadly, one of the Coens' pet themes is that money is the root of all evil, which connects them to a cinematic lineage stretching from Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1927) to John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) to Wall Street (1987). (There are also parallels to tonight’s double bill with John Huston’s 1941 noir The Maltese Falcon, in which men experience endless debasement for “the stuff that dreams are made of.”) If the Coen Brothers have a mantra, it might be to flip Gordon Gekko's infamous creed that “greed is good.”

It's not surprising that the brothers chose to adapt Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, where a suitcase full of money and the civilian whose extricated it from the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad are pursued through Texas and Mexico by a hired killer. That, of course, would be Anton Chigurh, played in the film by Javier Bardem as a dead-eyed sociopath who defers at all times to the wisdom of the coin he flips to determine the fate of his prey. The contradiction of a hitman with a 100 per cent termination rate who nevertheless advocates for a 50-50 chance is quintessential McCarthy. It also lines up perfectly with the existential side of the Coens' cinema, and Chigurh has endured as their most indelible villain – the sleek, scary embodiment of a random amoral universe.

The cinematic version of Chigurh is ultimately less interesting than his final victim, Carla Jean Moss, who may be the most quietly amazing character in the Coens' oeuvre. In McCarthy’s book, Carla Jean is confronted by Chigurh in her home after the death of her husband Llewellyn and told to flip the coin. “God would not want me to do that,” she pleads, before co-operating out of bare desperation. She calls heads, but the coin comes up tails, and after a few more words of explanation from Chigurh, an exhausted Carla Jean admits ruefully that she’s come around to his way of thinking. McCarthy writes: “Good he said. That’s good. Then he shot her.”

The Coens’ version of Carla Jean is a little tougher and more worldly than her literary counterpart. She’s played by the Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, who was 30 when the role was shot and avoids any teenaged affectations. When Bardem’s Chigurh offers her the chance to let the coin decide her fate, she chides him that “the coin don’t have no say… it’s you.” She doesn’t play along. She doesn’t beg for her life. Without getting up out of her seat or even lifting a finger, she stands up to Anton Chigurh and his warped worldview more forcefully than any other character in the movie. In the ultimate gesture of respect, the Coens honor her resistance by cutting discreetly away from her demise.

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As the lone important female in a movie whose masculine thrust begins with its title, Macdonald’s Carla Jean is not as frequently discussed in reviews as the characters played by Bardem, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones. This is understandable, insofar as Macdonald has a lot less screentime than her male co-stars. But the choice to position her one scene with Bardem as a final reckoning is crucial. In the film, as in the book, Chigurh is laid low by a car accident on his way back from Carla Jean’s house. McCarthy seems to intend the smashup as proof of his villain’s theories of predestination – he’s on the wrong end of a cosmic coin flip. The Coens suggest that Carla Jean’s stubbornness is what finally throws her killer off-course.

Not only do the Coens slightly re-route McCarthy’s themes, they trace a path back to their own work. We’re back to the end of Fargo where Gaear Grimsrud sits caged in a police car behind Marge Gunderson. It’s obvious enough in No Country for Old Men that Tommy Lee Jones' Sherriff Ed Tom Bell, a good cop shellshocked by the violence around him, is a close cousin of Brainerd’s put-upon police chief. But one could argue that Marge’s true soul sister in the Coens’ filmography is Carla Jean Moss. Neither woman can quite comprehend the brute greed around her. Gaear doesn't know that there's more to life than a little bit of money, and neither does Anton Chigurh, whose own choice of a coin as an “instrument” is symbolic in a way that outstrips even his own intentions. All of Chigurh’s lofty talk of principles boils down to what is an unquestioning worship of the almighty dollar.

In the novel, Chigurh eventually tracks down the money and brings it to its “rightful” owner – a nameless white-collar thug who is glad to receive it. In the movie, the money disappears and its fate remains unknown. Just as the Coens sensitively refuse to put an exclamation point on Carla Jean’s death, they resist this particular bit of narrative closure. This is a typical move: in Fargo, Carl Showalter buries a million dollars in the middle of nowhere and the secret of its location dies with him. In The Big Lebowski, the ransom money disappears and is barely mentioned for the second half of the movie. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the “treasure” that sets the whole plot in motion turns out to be nothing but a rumour. And in The Ladykillers, the gang’s ill-gotten gains are donated to Bob Jones University, which is to say that the money is as good as gone.

Marva’s ostensible act of charity at the end of The Ladykillers exposes her as a sort of holy fool, but she isn’t motivated by greed – just misplaced charity. In True Grit, young Maddie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld) is willing to pay bounty hunter Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn to avenge her father's death. Yet, she doesn't want any money for herself: she's searching for emotional restitution. Here, the Coens show their dark side by having her pay a figurative price. The film's coda shows her adrift in misanthropic middle age, lamenting the time that's gotten away from her since her teenage adventures on the frontier.

At the end of Fargo, Marge beams when her husband’s painting is selected to represent the state’s new three-cent stamp. It’s a literally penny-ante honour that she invests with greater worth through her supportive adulation. (Like so many husbands in the arts, Norm just needs his ego stroked.) Given the critical adoration for McDormand's performance, Fargo is more likely to be held up on feminist grounds than any of the Coens' other films about lovable male idiots (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy), or monstrously sensitive artist types (Barton Fink, Inside Llewyn Davis). But in that one, small, indelible moment in No Country for Old Men, Carla Jean Moss joins an impressive roll call of Coen heroines who refuse to listen when money talks.