Fargo: 25 Years Later, Who is the Protagonist?

by Rob Starzec

In the dreariness of a snowy landscape in the Midwest, the faint image of a red car towing a brand new tan Sierra grows as it moves towards us, slowly but surely. We can barely make out the headlights at first in this barren blanket of whiteness, but by the time the title: Fargo, appears on the screen, the car is clear as day. As is the actor driving it, (William H. Macy), as average everyday nice-guy Jerry Lundegaard. Or maybe “nice-guy” isn’t quite the correct term. The first scene of the film consists of this in-over-his-head father and husband meeting with two kidnappers-for-hire, Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), in a bar in Fargo, North Dakota. The plan for his wife’s kidnapping is entirely his idea, though it doesn’t make too much sense to the kidnappers. Either way, Jerry sets the story in motion.

The first half-hour of Fargo is driven entirely by Lundegaard. Most scenes focus on him and his family, aside from when the film cross-cuts to the thugs making their way across Minnesota to kidnap Jean. A lot of exciting stuff happening – Jerry almost doesn’t need his wife kidnapped when he expects to be aided financially by his father-in-law, Showalter and Grimsrud get stopped by a cop, and then Grimsrud needs to murder that same cop along with two witnesses as not to blow their cover. And then Frances McDormand comes into play as police officer Marge Gunderson.

When the film finally lays focus on Marge Gunderson, it’s almost like the movie is starting over. There is a cut to black at the end of the prior scene when Grimsrud shoots the second witness, and then we fade in on Marge and Norm Gunderson’s bedroom in the early morning where Marge gets the news that there has been a triple homicide. In film, a fade-in usually notes the beginning of something important, which is why so many screenplays start with the words “fade in.” So we’re starting a new thread of the story here, but why exactly is that?

Well, before the triple homicide, this wasn’t Gunderson’s story. It was Lundegaard’s. What good is a police officer/detective when there is no crime to prevent or nothing to investigate? Unless the Coen brothers chose to omit the previous half hour, Gunderson would have been without a purpose at the start of the story.

So then, which character is the protagonist of the film? The Coen Brothers along with members of the Academy seem to have labeled Gunderson as the film's protagonist without question. Frances McDormand’s name is the only actor’s name that is on the poster of the film, she is billed first in the credits, and she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Lead Role (and ended up winning that award). On the other hand, William H. Macy was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, which indicates that he would not be the lead character of the film. But how could that be so? He put the plot of the movie into gear, so to speak.

But he’s not a “good guy,” some would argue. But you don’t need to be “good” to be the protagonist of a story. Look at television shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. There is such a thing as an anti-hero! The protagonists do morally corrupt things like murder, steal, Tony Soprano cheats on his wife constantly, but The Sopranos is still Tony’s story.

Here is my belief – both Lundegaard and Gunderson are protagonists to this story, but Marge Gunderson is a more “traditional” protagonist which is why she is often labeled the lead character of this film. Gunderson is most definitely the “good guy” (or lady, in this case) in this story – she’s a cop, she has a very loving relationship with her husband, she is pregnant with their child and is still brave enough to continue with her job and track down murderers – she is clearly a heroine while Lundegaard would be considered an anti-hero. He doesn’t intend harm to his family, but he most definitely brings harm to his family in this story with the decisions he makes, even though he wears the façade of a Minnesotan “nice-guy.”

James Gandolfini as the Anti-Hero in The Sopranos

Both Lundegaard and Gunderson should be considered the leads in Fargo. Both drive the action of the story in different ways, and both end up changing through the course of what happens to them within the story. Lundegaard shifts from a nice, caring family man to a selfish, cruel individual who doesn’t even consider how the kidnapping of his wife would affect his son, Scotty, and Gunderson becomes less trustful of humanity by the end of the story, (the lies of Mike Yanagita propel her to investigate Lundegaard once more), telling one of the antagonists “you know, there’s more to life than just a little bit of money. Don’t you know that." So there you have it. Lundegaard is responsible for setting the plot of the film in motion, but Gunderson is the clear heroine of the film.

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