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.
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.
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.