There are so many great performances in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece tale of a harebrained kidnapping scheme gone terribly wrong – William H. Macy’s turn as the beleaguered, increasingly desperate, trapped-like-a-rat Jerry Lundergaard is a slow-burning marvel of psychic torment – but the beating heart of this funny, sad, upsetting, and ultimately profoundly philosophical film is Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning portrayal of local police chief Marge Gunderson, who finds herself unravelling an ugly set of murders perpetrated in the dead of night in her out-of-the-way jurisdiction of Brainerd, Minnesota, the fabled home of Paul Bunyan. We don’t get to meet Marge until over a half-hour in, and at first she seems an unlikely nemesis for the stone-cold, ham-fisted killers that Lundergaard somehow recruited to abduct his own wife, being pregnant, a little awkward, and by all appearances more than a little out of her depth, almost a comic figure when, as she tries to set off, her frozen police cruiser won’t even start. As she begins her preliminary investigation of the sort of crime scene that small town cops like her must almost never encounter, you expect her to be flummoxed and overwhelmed, yet she susses it all out straight away, all matter-of-fact, as cool and competent as any veteran of the NYC murder police: the State Trooper, dead beside his patrol car, was undoubtedly shot by whoever he pulled over in a roadside stop, then came the unexpected arrival of the unlucky passers-by, and the subsequent high speed chase, culminating in “this execution-style deal here” with the poor murdered couple lying dead near their car off the side of the highway, a bloody little stain amid the endless, desolate whitescape of the winter flatlands. It’s all there in her mind’s eye, clear as day, exactly as it all went down.
Our Margie, it quickly becomes obvious, has a whole hell of a lot going on beneath that unassuming, aw-shucks midwestern exterior, with her goofy-friendly accent, and her banal midwestern idioms (a mode of speaking referred to in those parts as “Minnesota Nice”), even as she shambles about in her overstuffed parka and struggles not to throw up all over the forensics when momentarily overcome by a bout of morning sickness. Scene after scene, we see the crisp, keen, analytical intelligence working behind her often bemused eyes, as she deals with the vaguely uncommunicative, sometimes dimwitted locals; sure, she sounds just like them, but you get the sense it’s a bit of a facade, an attitude she affects, not at all unkindly, just to put others at ease, the better to fight the uphill battle of teasing out whatever they might know:
Oh yeah, the little fella was funny-lookin’, more than most people even. God, I just love that.
It’s more than brains, though. Marge, we discover, has soul. She’s fundamentally decent, compassionate, empathetic, favouring a light touch when others might tend towards harshness. You see it in the gentle way she corrects her subordinate for not understanding (as any competent cop surely should) that “DLR” on a licence plate signifies temporary tags applied by the dealership, and how she softens the criticism with a little joke:
You see it in the delicate way she handles the unwanted advances of old high school acquaintance and manifest misfit Mike Yanagita, in a scene that some feel is a pointless aside, but which tells us so much about Marge’s inner workings; you see it again in the way she consoles her husband, whose artistic submission to a Post Office competition has been relegated to the less prestigious, little-used three-cent stamp; most of all you see it in the aftermath of the climactic “wood chipper” scene, with Marge sitting there in her Prowler, the apprehended mook in the back seat, while they wait for reinforcements to arrive and take the murdering dumbass away.
Finally, she’s worked it all out, the crime is solved, but a mystery remains: why, for the love of God? She knows, of course, but still – why? All the bodies this dull-affected cipher and his accomplice left in their wake, the state trooper, the unfortunate couple that happened to drive by at the wrong moment, a random parking lot attendant, both Lundergaard’s father-in-law and poor innocent wife, “and I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper”; all those lives eradicated, and for what? A little bit of money. How could that possibly have been enough to cause all this? It’s beyond her. She honestly can’t make sense of it, the sheer, pathetic tragedy of the whole mess, and all for nothing but money, it’s almost more than she can bear in that moment, talking at the mute, manacled wretch in the rearview mirror as if hoping to reach him somehow, knowing she’s never going to. He’ll never understand how much more there is to life, how much more there could have been for him, but now it’s too damned late, and he’s going to spend the rest of his days in a cell in some lightless supermax, his life ruined too, and here it is, a beautiful day, something he’s probably never appreciated and now never will, because he’s never going to see one again. For me, it’s one of the saddest lines in all of cinema, that superficially offhand, deceptively fraught little observation: “And here you are… and it’s a beautiful day”. That any of this was even possible, that people can demonstrate such witless avarice and pitiless cruelty, oblivious to the beauty all around them and all the world’s unexplored possibilities, just breaks her heart.