A Life of Not-So-Quiet Desperation
Jerry Lundegaard is… a total wreck. There's honestly no other way to put it. (Unless we were to call him a spineless total wreck.)
Dude's a sales manager at his father-in-law's Oldsmobile dealership. He's not making a ton of money and subject to his father-in-law's dismissive and distant attitude. He's in a heap of trouble.
Although we don't know the specific nature of his problem, Jerry's drowning in debt of some kind. He's already tried to solve the problem by embezzling $320,000 from the dealership by taking loans on non-existent cars. In order to pay it off, he has the genius idea of hiring someone to kidnap his wife, so he can get his hands on the ransom money his wealthy father-in-law, Wade, will undoubtedly pay.
Unbeknownst to the kidnappers, Jerry actually asks Wade for a cool million while telling his co-conspirators that the ransom will just be $80,000. He's swindling everyone. Things start to fall apart when the kidnappers end up murdering a state trooper and some witnesses. The police eventually close in on Jerry, who had the bright idea to steal a car from his own dealership to give to the kidnappers. Jerry ends up getting his wife killed, getting Wade killed, and ruining his son Scotty's life. Finally, the police catch him at a motel as he's trying to run away. In his underwear.
Like we said: a total wreck.
World's Most Inept Criminal
Just about everything Jerry tries to do is wrong. He cheats a customer into paying for an option he didn't agree to… and can't even pull that off convincingly. He thinks he can talk his father-in-law into loaning him $750,000. He's totally out of his league when it comes to serious crime.
His kidnapping plan is riddled with flaws. First of all, he doesn't even know the kidnappers; he has a very shady character find them—a shady character who works for the same dealership. Secondly, the plan involves stealing a car from his own lot to pay off the kidnappers, and we know that he's already in a lot of trouble with GMAC about the loans for missing cars. And thirdly, he has no way of getting in touch with the kidnappers when at one point he thinks he should call off the scheme.
When Carl calls to tell him that things have gotten more "complicated" (translation: they killed three people), what's he concerned about? The money, of course.
CARL: Look. I'm not gonna debate you, Jerry. The price is now the whole amount. We want the entire eighty thousand.
JERRY: Oh, for Chrissakes here –
CARL: Blood has been shed. We've incurred risks, Jerry. I'm coming into town tomorrow. Have the money ready.
JERRY: Now we had a deal here! A deal's a deal!
CARL: Is it, Jerry? You ask those three pour souls up in Brainerd if a deal's a deal! Go ahead, ask 'em!
JERRY: ... The heck d'ya mean?
No sooner does he hang up with Carl, than Reilly Diefenbach from the GMAC loan company calls to pressure him about those loans. He can't even manage to lie about it that well. And he's totally transparent and defensive when Marge comes to interview him about the stolen Ciera. His smile looks frozen on his face, and he won't answer her questions. During Marge's second visit, he eventually freaks out, jumps into a car, and takes off. That pretty much seals his fate.
Any judgment that Jerry had (and we doubt it was very much) goes down the drain because of his desperate need for money. As he tells Carl, while refusing to explain why he needs it:
JERRY: Well, that's... that's... I'm not going into, into... see, I just need money. Now, her dad's real well off.
But we don't completely hate Jerry; he's just too pathetic. We can even empathize with his desperation, if not with his stupidity and utterly mindless disregard for his wife's wellbeing. There's something slightly touching about his ability to keep trying to make things right, when they're obviously on the verge of plummeting into chaos.
Not Exactly Father of the Year
Jerry's family life isn't the greatest. He's dependent on his narcissistic father-in-law for a job, and Wade clearly doesn't like him all that much. We don't learn much about his relationship with Jean, but whatever it is, he's decided to turn her into his own personal fundraiser, putting her life at risk in the process.
He actually thinks his plan can go down without anything bad happening. (As if the act of being kidnapped in a home invasion isn't anything bad, just as long as she's returned to her family.) He has to turn Jean into an object and ignore the suffering she'll experience in order to carry out this plan.
When the kidnapping actually takes place, Jerry's so preoccupied with how to tell Wade and procure the money that he completely forgets about his son, who's at home terrified about what happened to his mom.
STAN: Okay. And Scotty, is he gonna be all right?
JERRY: Yeah, geez, Scotty. I'll go talk to him.
Geez. Once he does talk to Scotty, he tries his best to be reassuring until Scotty makes a sensible suggestion: they should call the cops. At that point, the lies start:
SCOTT: Dad, I really think we should call the cops.
JERRY: No! We can't let anyone know about this thing! We gotta play ball with these guys - you ask Stan Grossman, he'll tell ya the same thing.
SCOTT: Yeah, but -
JERRY: We're gonna get Mom back for ya, but we gotta play ball. Ya know, that's the deal. So if Lorraine calls, or Sylvia, you just say that Mom's down in Florida with Pearl and Marty. That's the best we can do here.
That's the best he can do? Pretty sad.
Jerry's definitely a lost soul. It's hard to really get a read on his psychology too, since the Coens won't let us know his true motives for doing what he's doing. There's nothing he can really rely on in his life; there's no moment of possible salvation for him, no point at which he can reverse course.
He doesn't even know it, but as soon as he set his course of action at the beginning, hiring Carl and Gaear, he's sealed his—and his family's—own doom.