Not Your Typical Movie Cop
Instead of going with the typical fedora-wearing P.I. swilling booze in a seedy downtown office, the Coens create Marge Gunderson: a super-preggo police chief who's better at her job than 90% of fictional detectives.
Played by Frances McDormand, Marge is the ray of sanity and goodness in the bleak landscape of murder and betrayal gone horribly wrong. In our humble opinion, Marge is one of the most unforgettable movie characters ever created. She's a smart, no-nonsense professional who never loses her cool… unlike the crazy, impulsive criminals she's chasing.
Marge has a happy home life with her hubby Norm and spends her free time scarfing down Arby's with Norm, going to all-you-can-eat buffets, and watching TV in bed. (Her prodigious pregnant appetite is a running joke in the movie.) It's a pretty conventional life, besides the fact that she's running down some pretty brutal killers.
Here's a weird thing, though: we don't meet Marge until more than thirty minutes into the movie. Jerry's kidnapping scheme has already gone south, and Carl and Gaear have left three dead bodies outside Marge's hometown of Brainerd. It's the discovery of those Brainerd bodies that introduces us to the oh-so-lovable Marge.
She quickly sets about unraveling the case—talking to sex workers who slept with the culprits, interviewing Shep Proudfoot and Jerry in Minneapolis, having dinner with a definitely insane-o former classmate (well, that's a digression), identifying Jerry as someone who's definitely involved, and finally arresting Gaear as he disposes of Carl's body. She's relentless—you betcha.
Marge defies the stereotype of the movie police chief. She's a small-town cop, she's a woman, she's pregnant, and she's unfailingly polite. (Sorry, other police chiefs of the world.) But after we see her lumber out of bed and eat breakfast, we learn that she's a crack investigator. After arriving on the crime scene, she figures out the basics of what went down in about thirty seconds.
MARGE: Okay, so we got a state trooper pulls someone over, we got a shooting, and these folks drive by, and we got a high-speed pursuit, ends here, and this execution-type deal.
MARGE: I'd be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd.
MARGE :Yah. And I'll tell you what, from his footprints he looks like a big fella.
You can always see the wheels quietly turning when Marge gets information. And she's pretty relentless when she senses something just isn't right. She goes back to interview Jerry a second time about the missing Ciera and see that Jerry's getting pretty defensive:
MARGE: So how do you - have you done any kind of inventory recently?
JERRY: The car's not from our lot, ma'am.
MARGE: But do you know that for sure without –
JERRY: Well, I would know. I'm the Executive Sales Manager.
MARGE: Yah, but –
JERRY We run a pretty tight ship here.
MARGE: I know, but - well, how do you establish that, sir? Are the cars, uh, counted daily or what kind of –
JERRY: [loudly] Ma'am, I answered your question.
[Marge looks intently at Jerry.]
MARGE: ... I'm sorry, sir?
JERRY: Ma'am, I answered your question. I answered the darn - I'm cooperating here, and I...
MARGE: Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me. I'm just doin' my job here.
That kind of seals the deal. Jerry knows Marge is onto him, and he takes off.
Back to those stereotypes… you might think that Marge, being pregnant and all, might want to avoid dealing with potential nastiness. You'd be wrong. For instance, she doesn't back down when dealing with the ominous looking Shep Proudfoot, the guy who helped Jerry set up the kidnapping.
MARGE Well, Mr. Proudfoot, this call came in past three in the morning. It's just hard for me to believe you can't remember anyone calling.
[Shep says nothing.]
MARGE: Now, I know you've had some problems, struggling with the narcotics, some other entanglements, currently on parole –
MARGE: Well, associating with criminals, if you're the one they talked to, that right there would be a violation of your parole and would end with you back in Stillwater.
MARGE: Now, I saw some rough stuff on your priors, but nothing in the nature of a homicide...
[Shep stares at her.]
MARGE: I know you don't want to be an accessory to something like that.
MARGE: So you think you might remember who those folks were who called ya?
Marge also doesn't hesitate to approach Gaear while he's busy cramming Carl's body parts into a wood chipper. She calls for backup, but that doesn't come until well after she shoots him in the leg, arrests him, and somehow manages to get him into her cruiser. She doesn't seem physically strong enough to drag him in there herself—he's a huge guy—so we assume there was something about Marge that got him to cooperate. Sure, he was wounded, but he could've tried to grab her gun—he's a pretty bloodthirsty dude.
But that's our Marge: she's a force to be reckoned with.
Marge is written as a typical Minnesota type: very understated, always polite, and respectful even when dealing with criminals (like in that exchange with Shep Proudfoot). We never really see her express strong emotion, even in highly charged situations.
She's affectionate with Norm but never gushes and never loses her cool. She seems confident in her ability to handle situations without reporting to threats or raising her voice. At one point she needs to correct Lou, one of her officers, about a pretty dumb mistake he's just made:
LOU: Under the plate number he put DLR - I figure they stopped him or shot him before he could finish fillin' out the tag number.
LOU: So I got the state lookin' for a Ciera with a tag startin' DLR. They don't got no match yet.
MARGE: I'm not sure I agree with you a hunnert percent on your policework, there, Lou.
MARGE: Yah, I think that vehicle there probly had dealer plates. DLR?
Lou gazes out the window, thinking.
LOU: ... Geez.
MARGE: Yah. Say, Lou, ya hear the one about the guy who couldn't afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J2L 4685?
It's not like Marge to say "Don't be an idiot, Lou." She corrects him gently and when she sees he's embarrassed, she changes the subject with a joke. This makes Marge one of the best bosses we've ever seen… especially in movies about cops and homicide.
The same thing happens with her nutty old high school friend, Mike Yanagita, who she meets for a drink when he's in town. Mike's always had a crush on Marge, and while they're talking, he slides out of his seat and sits next to Marge on her side of the booth.
MARGE: No, I - Mike – why doncha sit over there? I'd prefer that.
MIKE: Huh? Oh, okay, I'm sorry.
MARGE: No, just so I can see ya, ya know. Don't have to turn my neck.
MIKE: Oh, sure, I understand, I didn't mean to –
MARGE: No, no, that's fine.
Marge tries to spare Mike's feelings, but she still stands her ground and doesn't let him get too close. This combination of firmness and politeness is one of her most striking qualities. She's not just a people-pleaser, like lots of polite folks, but she sees no purpose in humiliating anyone.
Sometimes her expression is hard to read—after she's rebuffed Mike, for example, or when she's looking at Jerry as he's getting more and more freaked out during their interview. All this composure and self-control is really useful to her in her work, because it's hard to second-guess her. Not that she's not intense about her work—the most excited we see Marge get is when she spots the tan Ciera outside the cabin on Moose Lake and knows she's found the bad guys.
The Good Wife
When not engaging in her heroic course of action, Marge hangs out with Norm, mainly eating and watching TV in bed. They have a strong and supportive marriage—it looks super-cozy, and Marge always makes Norm feel important. For instance, when Norm doesn't win the prize he wanted with his postage-stamp art, Marge consoles him and finds the sunny side:
NORM: Hautman's blue-winged teal got the twenty-nine cent. People don't much use the three-cent.
MARGE: Oh, for Pete's sake, of course they do! Whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps.
Here's a very telling detail: when Marge is awakened and told about the three murders, Norm, makes sure he makes her a hot breakfast. Marge bundles up and heads out the door to the crime scene, but a few seconds later, she's back in the house. She tells Norm, "The prowler needs a jump," and Norm (being the sweetiepie that he is), comes out and helps her start her police cruiser in freezing Minnesota weather.
The Simple Life
Not only is Marge is a stand-up individual, but she's also content. She's not unduly self-conscious: she's happy eating Arby's, she's a sound sleeper, and she loves her husband. You couldn't say she necessarily changes throughout the movie—she's basically the same nice person she was at the beginning, although she's successfully resolved a gruesome case and had to shoot somebody. (Change is reserved for the bad guys, who typically end up dying or getting arrested.)
Marge is buoyed along by her positive philosophy and her willingness to embrace her simple life. Unlike people who are craving things they can't have—running into debt like Jerry, or stalking people like Mike Yanagita—Marge is pretty satisfied with her life. She expresses this at the end, when she tells Gaear, who's sitting impassively in the back of the cruiser:
MARGE: 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.
A Study in Contrasts
Marge is a decent person thrown into a very, very indecent situation. One reviewer described it as if Andy of Mayberry accidentally drove his police car into the Kansas of In Cold Blood. While greed, bad judgment, murderous rage, narcissism, and deceit swirl around like Minnesota snowflakes, Marge grounds the movie. She doesn't have to abandon her small-town values in order to deal with this corrupt world. She can witness a man shoving his partner through a woodchipper and still maintain that it's a beautiful day.
Marge is the moral center of the film, even though she's not trying to be. She's just decent, calm, kind, focused, honest, and levelheaded; she's everything that Jerry, Wade, Carl, Gaear, and Shep aren't. Her marriage to Norm is in stark contrast to Jerry's callous indifference to his wife. She listens while the others spout off. She's not driven by greed or dissatisfaction. She is content.
And that's not too bad.