Time to wrap up my analysis of Fargo (written by Ethan and Joel Cohen) by examining Act Three. Remember, I’m working from the screenplay available here.
The first thing we look for in Act Three is the aftermath of the Act Two Break. In this case we see Jerry trying to clean up the crime scene. He doesn’t really have a plan anymore, but he’s trying desperately to get out of the hole he’s dug. He goes home where his son alerts him that his father-in-law’s lawyer is trying to reach him. This serves two purposes: a reminder of the human toll of Jerry’s actions and an emphasis of the danger Jerry’s in. How does Jerry react? He goes to bed.
We then see aftermath in the form of minor characters’ reactions to recent events – the ever-tightening noose of the investigation and Carl burying the money.
Next we get the epiphany. It’s a bit unusual here in that the realization comes to the antagonist. Marge learns the old school chum she met was lying to her. This prompts her to go back to the dealership and talk to Jerry. His story doesn’t quite add up, after all – maybe he's lying, too. This is the moment that will lead to Jerry’s undoing. He can’t answer her questions and flees.
Now Marge begins to figure out what’s really going on. This leads to the resolution when she finds the missing car and arrests the surviving kidnapper. Carl and Jerry’s wife are dead. And the final bit of the conclusion is Jerry being pulled over and arrested. The dramatic question of “Will Jerry succeed in his kidnapping plan” set up in Act One has been answered definitively in the negative.
Lastly there’s a little denouement where we see Marge and her husband living their nice little domestic life. This gives us a positive note to end on, that life is good for those who value family over money and have strong ethics.
The things that are most interesting to me about Fargo are the “wrong” Act Two Break that I discussed in the post on the movie’s Act Two and the hope and fear of the film. This is an example where we are rooting for the antagonist. We have ambivalent feelings for Jerry, though. We don’t really want him to get away with his plot, but neither do we want to see his wife or father-in-law killed. So the outcome of the crime is somewhat bittersweet for us. Which makes the denouement important in mitigating the unpleasantness of the story. It’s always important to think of the feeling you want the audience to have when they leave the theater.
Ultimately what makes Fargo work is the quirky characters and the unusual setting. It has a certain verisimilitude derived from its specificity. And though it is an indie film, it still mostly follows traditional three-act structural principals. Most importantly, it has a very strong dramatic question, set up in the catalyst and answered in the resolution, that defines the scope of the film and pulls the audience through.
Perhaps not the clearest example of structural principles, but evidence that strong structure is important even in more “artsy” films.