The reason it’s so difficult to peg as a comedy is that the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed, want you to think it’s something else. The film is filled with cues — the stark cinematography, the desolate snow-covered setting, the majestically ominous score — telling us to take what we are seeing seriously. Yet the longer the film goes, the more it looks like the Coens are trying to put one over on us. The bumbling presence of Steve Buscemi as a hired kidnapper, William H. Macy’s turn as a hopelessly hapless car salesman, Frances McDormand’s performance as the very friendly and very pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson — and more than the performances — the interest paid to quirks of behavior and language, all slowly combine until at a certain point we realize that the Coens are taking none of this seriously.
It’s not all faux-thriller, of course. The kidnapping scene is unabashed slapstick; and when Marge interviews two girls about the suspected kidnappers/murderers they had sex with a few nights before, their “Oh yah?”/”Yah!”-filled conversation has the rhythm of an Abbot and Costello routine.
There was a moment when I watched it this time around when it became undeniable, when the film announces to anyone who might still be a little confused as to its intentions that it is definitely, definitively a comedy. It’s late in the film, when kidnapper Carl Showalter (Buscemi) shoots Wade (Harve Presnell), the father of the woman he has kidnapped, in frustration during their exchange of the ransom. The film cuts to a close-up of Wade as he falls in slow-motion to the snow-covered ground, groaning “Oooooooooohhhhhhh jeeeeeeeeeeeez” all the way down.
Identifying heroes is trickier than one might think. Obviously the stand-out is Marge. She’s not only a friendly and likable woman, who we admire for working a difficult job while great with child, she demonstrates that beneath the affability and goof Minnesota accent is a sharp and capable investigator. Contrary to what someone in my film class this past spring (who must have snuck out during the screening to watch a different movie) observed, she does not solve the crime accidentally — she pieces together details, follows leads, talks to the right people and eventually gets her man. It’s another example of the film’s misdirection — her quirky exterior cues us to regard Marge with amusement, but she ultimately transcends that characterization and becomes a fully realized hero.
Though it might not seem obvious at first, Jerry Lundegaard (Macy’s pathetic car salesman) is a hero, too. Jerry gets the bloody ball rolling by hiring Carl and his tight-lipped partner Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife. When things go horribly wrong, Jerry packs the corpse of his father-in-law into the trunk of his car and drives home. In the end, police find him hiding out in a motel room, having apparently abandoned his own son. Clearly “hero” in this instance doesn’t translate to “good guy.”
But Jerry is a hero within the story. He is a classic film noir hero, an ordinary guy of average (maybe below average in this case) intelligence who finds himself in a desperate circumstance, tries to escape and only succeeds in making things much worse. His scheme to secretly keep most of the ransom for his wife’s kidnapping seems harebrained even to the thugs he hires to help him. When Marge comes to visit him for the second time, Jerry panics and flees, incriminating himself once and for all. Jerry is a guy with more ambition than brains who is willing to compromise his morals to get what he wants (or thinks he needs). He’d be right at home alongside Joseph Cotten or Robert Mitchum in some black and white 1940s potboiler.
The film really belongs to Marge, though, and it’s her, I think, that most people remember when it’s over. She’s one of the most unique characters in all of American film — a pregnant police chief who is able to retain her rural “aw jeez” attitude while solving a gruesome multiple homicide and tracking down the killers. She’s still two months away from having the baby when the movie’s over. The Coens didn’t make her pregnant to take advantage of the phony drama a birth scene would have provided; they did it, perhaps, to underline her heroism. Shooting a fleeing suspect in the leg across a snow-covered field is impressive enough when someone does it at their physical peak; anyone who can manage that in their third trimester deserves a cup of hot coffee and a plate of scrambled eggs.