Aw Jeez: The Character of Jerry Lundegaard in ‘Fargo’

WARNING: Contains extreme spoilers for the Coen Brother’s Fargo.

The Coen Brother’s dark comedy masterpiece Fargo is twenty years old today, and in celebration of this landmark film I’ve written a piece on one of the Coens’ most interesting, most divisive, and least talked-about characters, Jerry Lundegaard, masterfully portrayed by William H. Macy.

I remember some time ago reading a review in which the author named Jerry Lundegaard the “villain” of Fargo. Although I haven’t been able to track down that review since, that remark got me thinking about Jerry’s role in the film, whether or not he is a true villain, and what we as an audience are expected to feel about him.

One of the questions about Fargo that remains unresolved is, “Who is the main character?” Though the general consensus is that Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is the main character, one could argue that it is in fact Jerry who is the main character. First of all, without him there is no story, as he incites action when he orders his wife to be kidnapped. Second, almost every plot development that occurs afterwards is connected to either a decision he makes or doesn’t make. For instance, Wade¬†wound up dead because Jerry essentially allowed him to take the money to the kidnappers, rather than put his foot down and demand he delivers the money himself. Finally, it is Jerry’s goal that motivates every development, and that is his goal to be in control of his life, monetarily and mentally, which is why he had his wife kidnapped in the first place, and the entire film is about Jerry’s attempt to maintain control of the situation, even as events continually spiral in the opposite direction.

However, following the introduction of Marge at the end of the first act, the film switches focus to her, and the investigation becomes the key arc of the story. So, even though Jerry’s motivations permeate through the film, they are not ultimately what pushes the film forward; hence it is fair to say that Marge is, on the whole, the main character of the film (it is also important to bear in mind that Jerry is almost entirely forgotten about for¬†about fifteen minutes when he runs away from his second interview with Marge).

But does Jerry classify as a villain? Based solely on his actions, he does. He has his wife kidnapped, he cheats his customers, lies instinctively, obstructs the work of the main character, and is so selfish he forgot to think about how his son would take his mother’s kidnapping.

However, I believe a true movie villain is composed of three other ingredients:

  1. They need to be aware of the morality and consequences of their actions,
  2. which they carry on doing with competence,
  3. and either enjoy or remain indifferent to what they do. A few classic villains who immediately jump to mind as such would be Hannibal Lecter from Jonathan Demme‘s The Silence of the Lambs, Hans Gruber from John McTiernan’s Die Hard and Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Looking at Jerry Lundegaard’s character, it is fair to say that he is the antagonist (in that his motivations run contrary to those of the main character and he intentionally tries to prevent her from achieving her goals), but I don’t believe that he classifies as an outright villain. He almost passes the first criterion in that he is aware that his actions are morally wrong and yet continues to do them, but he lacks any foresight as to their possible consequences (such as the scene where he is suddenly reminded of his son’s entanglement in the entire plot).

Also, his execution of said actions are almost entirely incompetent. He arrived late for his rendez-vous with the kidnappers, he crumbled under Wade’s insistence that he deliver his own money, and the car buyers at the beginning of the film immediately see through his scam.

And finally, he does not enjoy or remain indifferent to his actions. When one of the above mentioned buyers calls him a “forking liar”, he hangs his head in resigned shame: he knows he is a liar, and he lies (albeit incompetently) because that’s all he can do, but he hates himself for being a liar. When he allows Wade to deliver the money, just like when Karl extorts the entire ransom from him and Wade essentially steals a property deal from under his nose, he is visibly full of self-loathing and frustration at his own spinelessness.

But nevertheless, this is a compulsive liar who ordered the kidnapping of his wife, was indirectly responsible for the deaths of six people, and abandoned his son in order to save his own skin. So how are we meant to feel for him?

While I understand why many audience members would outright despise Jerry based on the immorality of his actions and character, I find that it is still possible to feel sympathy for him, since he is a not a villain, but a man who got in over his head. Granted he is a spineless, ignorant, compulsive man with no clear moral compass apart from his own self-preservation, but it is in the correction of his son’s coarse language, his wide eyed innocence, his desperate screams during his arrest, and “Aw Jeez”‘s that we can see he is still indeed a man like any other.

This contrast between the immorality and despicable nature of a character’s actions and the sheer humanity of their presentation has been one of the trademarks of the Coen Brothers since the beginning of their careers, but it is in the character of Jerry Lundegaard that their talents shined through the clearest.

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