Marge Gunderson, introduced to the world 20 years ago in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo, is one of the great characters in movie history. A pregnant cop who sees things no one else does while shuffling unperturbed through the perpetual snow of a Minnesota winter, Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand in a perfect performance that won her an Oscar), is that rare type of onscreen character who enlightens as much as she entertains.
We first meet her a third of the way into the movie, after the film’s first brutal crimes—a kidnapping and three murders—have taken place. The phone rings. She wakes up and answers it. A police officer is dead, and it’s time for her to go to work. From here she begins her investigation, examining all the bloody evidence and interviewing all the kooky Minnesotans in an attempt to crack the case wide open.
While her partner holds her coffee, Gunderson waddles through a snowy crime scene and quickly puts together a narrative for three roadside killings.
“So we got a trooper pulls someone over, there’s a shooting, these folks drive by, there’s a high-speed pursuit—ends here—and then this execution type deal. I’d be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd. And I’ll tell you what, from his footprint he looks like a big fella.”
Gunderson is eventually proven right on all counts, and, by the end of the movie, helps catch all the responsible parties who survived long enough to be caught. Her interviews with witnesses and perps while en route to that ending are as funny as they are impressive, and showcase an unwavering sense of responsibility for her job as an officer of the law. She behaves like we wish all of them would—is never impulsive, thinks before acting, and gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, even when there is so much doubt to be had. She uses her gun, but only when she needs to. She’s always kind, but never naive.
Come to think of it, that’s a fine description for anyone, regardless of occupation.
Fargo’s best scene—the one that showcases Gunderson’s most admirable qualities—comes near the end. While the criminal she just shot (Peter Stormare) peers at her through the rearview mirror of her patrol car, she says:
“So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day! Well, I just don’t understand it.”
Minnesotans—both on and offscreen—are known for being “nice,” but nice is just a performance. Commendable and well-intentioned, sure, but easy. Good, though? Good’s tougher than nice. Good means more than nice. Beyond all the pleasantries that are mere habits and smiles that serve as masks, there is a profound goodness in Marge that sets her apart from the shivering niceness that surrounds her. She doesn’t just want the world to be a better place, she took a job to try and make it that way. If only every cop could be as good as Margie—or every one of us, for that matter.
Like many Coen brothers movies, Fargo’s just a simple story about good vs. evil. And while neither side is ever wholly victorious by the end, good usually has the upper hand—if only by a finger. Marge Gunderson is one of cinema’s great arbiters of good, and one who could really teach us all a thing or two about how to live on this frequently shitty planet. After 20 years, maybe she already has.
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Image via screengrab.