(Note from Act I Part 2 post – I should have mentioned that the end of Act One in Zombieland is when Columbus meets Wichita. This is when he enters the special world of romance.)
As I go through my in-depth look at structure, I’m going to concurrently analyze Fargo (written by Ethan and Joel Cohen). So today let’s examine Act One. I’m looking at the script itself (which can be found here) instead of the film.
The first thing we need to discuss is the main character. It’s Marge Gunderson, right? But wait… she doesn’t appear until more than a quarter of the way into the movie. How can this be? It can be because Marge is actually not the main character. The main character is Jerry. Marge is the antagonist.
One of the unusual about Fargo is that the antagonist is the likable character and the protagonist isn’t. We’re rooting against the protagonist. This isn’t unprecedented – gangster and crime movies work this way sometimes, and this is a crime movie. Usually though the antagonist would be introduced earlier. So now that we know Jerry’s the main character, let’s analyze!
Fargo opens with an image of a car towing another car through a snowstorm. This is a nice image to set up the North Dakota winter environment that is such a big part of the appeal of the movie.
Immediately following that we are introduced to our main character, Jerry, as he checks into a motel under a false name. But he screws up and writes his real name in the register before realizing and crossing it out, then filling in the fake name. Our first impression is that he must be up to something but that he’s not very good at being deceitful. Over the next few scenes we see that he’s awkward and unassertive and easily intimidated.
Prologue and Domino
There is no real prologue or domino in Fargo. You could say Jerry’s money troubles are the domino, but they’ve happened before the start of the story.
Here it gets kind of interesting. The catalyst comes really early – when Jerry goes to meet the men he’s hired to kidnap his wife so he can get ransom from his father-in-law. Here we have our main character and his dilemma – Jerry’s concocted a dangerous plan to get money he needs. We learn that he can’t let his family know about his debts. And we’ve established that the…
…of the movie is “Will Jerry succeed in his kidnapping plan?” The story will be over when we’ve learned the answer to that question.
We get a tiny sense of what Jerry’s life is like before the catalyst, but Fargo takes the unusual step of putting most of the status quo section after the catalyst. We follow up Jerry hiring the kidnappers by seeing Jerry at home. We meet his family. See that his father-in-law really doesn’t respect him. Just a bit later we see him at work trying a half-hearted and obvious scam on a customer. He’s a pathetic, unscrupulous guy.
This is not such a bad variation on the typical structural order. Jerry is not a guy we’re going to be that interested in normally. By showing the catalyst up front we get the audience hooked into the crime story. Then we’re able to follow Jerry back to his “normal world” and see what that’s like. Generally the earlier you can get the catalyst into the story the better. Usually that’s not until about page ten, but if you can do it on page three, why not?
The important thing is to find a way to show the character’s normal life so that we understand how the story affects him. And Fargo manages to pull that off despite the early catalyst.
Character Want and Need
It’s clear what Jerry wants: money. It’s also pretty clear that his need is to get some moral backbone. He’s in trouble and unhappy both because he’s done unethical things and he won’t stand up for himself. Jerry’s not going to arc much in this story – another unusual choice. But we still need a powerful want to pull us through and the contrasting need gives us character depth.
Build to Act One
Okay, so the catalyst is early in Fargo and then we get some status quo time to set up who Jerry is and what his life is like. After that we start to build toward the act one break. There’s a scene where Jerry gets a call from a loan officer who says he needs serial numbers of cars Jerry’s used to guarantee the loan. We realize the cars don’t exist. That gives us the stakes and a ticking clock. We’re focusing Jerry’s problem.
We also have a surprising moment where Jerry’s father-in-law indicates he might be willing to give Jerry the money he needs for his parking lot project. Jerry tries to call off the kidnapping plan. But he can’t get through to the kidnappers and early in act two we’ll learn there was a misunderstanding and Jerry’s father-in-law isn’t going to save him after all. This serves to both eliminate alternate possible solutions and show Jerry resist his “call to adventure.” We know that the kidnapping plan is a last resort. And he’s going to need that last resort.
Act One Break
The end of act one is when Jerry’s wife, Jean, is actually kidnapped. This is a point of no return. Jerry can’t call off the plan anymore. He’s going to have to see this through to the end.
We also have a special world here. Though he’s done some underhanded and even illegal things, Jerry really isn’t a hardcore criminal. Once his wife is kidnapped he’s entering a new world of violent crime, a big departure from his tawdry used car salesman lifestyle.
Fargo obviously does some unusual structural things. It was an independent film, after all. But it still has the core story elements of a character who has a dilemma that creates a dramatic question that defines the movie. And it introduces this character and dilemma early on, then clarifies what’s at stake.