Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fargo – Act Two

(SPOILERS:  Fargo)

Now that I’ve spent the last few posts going through the various elements often found in Act Two, it’s time for me to catch up with my analysis of Fargo (written by Ethan and Joel Cohen).  Let’s look at what happens in Fargo’s second act.

Special World

The special world for our hero, Jerry, is the world of crime.  So we see him discovering what it means to live in this world – he negotiates with his father-in-law to get the ransom money and deals with the impact of the crime on his son.

Fun and Games

Since this is a crime story the fun and games section pays off those elements.  First we see the kidnappers get pulled over and shoot a cop.  Then we see Marge investigating the crime scene.  I think the important thing to note is how rich these scenes are.  The Cohen brothers make sure to give us fully realized set-piece scenes full of twists and witty dialogue and good crime stuff. 

And they use their location – the wintry North Dakota – to full effect.  This is part of the premise of the movie as well.  We see how the snow and bitter cold affect things – tracks in the snow that tell a story, Marge’s car needing a jump, etc.  We’re also treated to some of the cultural quirks of Fargo (the location) such as ice fishing and the stamp contest.

Allies and Enemies

The main enemy introduced early in Act Two is the antagonist:  Marge.  Most of the other players have already made appearances in the film at this point.  This is kind of unusual.  More often we meet the antagonist in Act One and their henchmen somewhere near the beginning of Act Two.


The midpoint in Fargo is when the kidnappers call Jerry and demand the entire amount of the ransom (they were supposed to split it with him).  In the very same scene, a representative from the auto company calls and threatens to turn the matter of the missing cars over to the legal department if they don’t receive the info they want by the following afternoon.  This scene adds a slight twist with the changing plans and a ticking clock with the threat from the rep.  It also reinforces what’s at stake for Jerry.

Subplot Wrap-Up

Following the Midpoint we spend a lot of time focusing on two subplots.  The bigger one is Marge reconnecting with a school friend who turns out to be a little unhinged. The other is Carl the kidnapper leaving the house where they’ve holed because he's sick of his partner.  Both of these sequences allow us a deeper understanding of the characters.  Meanwhile, Marge’s investigation is slowly closing in, building toward the Act Two Break.

Act Two Break

The Act Two Break is when the payoff goes awry.  Jerry’s father-in-law is killed and Carl is wounded.  The whole plan has collapsed.

This is troubling to me.  This would be a good Act Two break if in the end Jerry was going to get away with his plan.  But in the end Jerry is going to fail.  According to traditional three-act structure, the Act Two break for this story should be a point where it looks like Jerry might succeed.  But in Fargo, the Midpoint, Act Two Break and Resolution are all moments of Jerry’s failure.

So is it possible I'm wrong and this isn't really the Act Two break?  Well, anything is possible...  But this sure looks like an act break to me.  The tension of the story changes.  Jerry's plan is in tatters - there's no apparent way for him to get the money he needs.  It moves from a story about trying to execute a crime to a story about avoiding arrest.

The problem with the Act Two Break being the same as the Resolution (in terms of success/failure) is that it should result is a predictable story with no twists and turns.  And if you think about it, Fargo is pretty predictable as far as the crime plot is concerned.  There is never a moment in the film where Jerry’s plan seems like it’s going well.  He does nothing but fail from beginning to end.  There’s never really a surprising plot twist – we could certainly anticipate the events of the Act Two Break well in advance.  At the Break I thought, "boy, I don't see how Jerry's going to get away with this."  And then, sure enough, he doesn't.  Yet the movie was a critical and commercial hit.  And perhaps more importantly to me, I liked it.  What does this mean?

I think it means the movie succeeds in spite of its predictability.  I always tell my students, "people go to movies for a lot of reasons but it's never to see a good act break."  What makes the Cohen’s such great filmmakers is their original, quirky characters and dialogue.  Fargo is one of the best examples of that. Would it have been better if there were a moment where Jerry seems to triumph over his adversaries – a scene where it looks like he might get away with it and where Marge looks like she’ll lose the trail?  Yeah, maybe it would have.

But I go back to that saying that I heard from the late, great Frank Daniel:  “The only rule in screenwriting is don’t be boring.” 

Fargo definitely isn’t boring.


Sanket said...

Thanks much for proceeding this.
It is indeed helping a lot.

Sanket said...

Marge's meeting with her school friend does not help or affect her in any helpful way, nor it helps the main plot. Heard/Read it somewhere that writers were trying to show the haphazardness of life by that scene. It seemed to me it was unnecessary. That subplot could've been eliminated altogether.
Same thing in Sideways. Mile stops at his mother's house on his way to wineries. That scene reveals he is divorced for 2 years and still hung over on his ex-wife. The scene was very much extended by showing him stealing the money, talking about his sister and family and having them stay there for a night. Could that have been eliminated too? Maybe in independent cinema, writers/directors get this independence to retain their whims all the way to the screen?

Sanket said...

Found an interesting take in regards to the above mentioned scene from RogerEbert's review.

There is a scene many viewers find inexplicable. On the evening between her first and second interviews with Jerry, Marge has dinner with a high school classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum says it's ``a disturbing interlude that strikes many others as wrong or dubious,'' but he finds it a key: ``in terms of theme_a lonely individual lying compulsively, trying without success to hide his desperation_it registers as central.'' I agree. I think Mike works as a mirror of Jerry, and that the dinner scene acts as the link between Marge's first and second interviews with him. The next morning, she is preparing to return to Brainerd when a high school girlfriend tells her that everything Mike said was a lie. That's the wake-up call that leads back to Jerry's desk at the dealership. The Mike interlude not only provides a delicate study of Marge coping with an embarrassing situation, but is infinitely better than the alternative_a single interview with Jerry that simply grinds him down.