JERRY: Yah. Personal matters that needn't, uh…
CARL: Okay, Jerry. You're tasking us to perform this mission, but you, you won't, uh, you won't… Aw, fuck it, let's take a look at that Ciera.
Jerry is refusing to explain why he needs the money to Carl. Carl seems concerned, but then decides to take a look at the car Jerry's offering them. They're both guilty of making choices without thinking things through. If Carl would have known Jerry was in the hole for embezzling money, he might not have taken the job. Maybe we're giving him too much credit; he's just after money, too.
DIEFENBACH: Yeah, but we have an audit here, I just have to know that these vehicles you're financing with this money, that they really exist.
JERRY: Yah, well, they exist all right.
Jerry keeps flailing around, trying to convince Diefenbach that the cars are real, but without putting much effort into it. Jerry made the choice to embezzle money right under his father-in-law's nose. His haplessness turns this into a more serious situation, with Diefenbach later on threatening to tell the legal department about the problem. Each of Jerry's choices along the way keep compounding his problems.
CARL: Circumstances have changed, Jerry.
JERRY: Well... what do ya mean?
CARL: Things have changed. Circumstances, Jerry. Beyond the, uh, acts of God, force majeure…
Jerry didn't expect circumstances would change. For some reason, he thought hiring a pair of incompetent criminals to kidnap his wife wouldn't result in anything unforeseeable—like a triple homicide. His choices kick off a chain of events that rapidly gets out of control. And Carl, who's got no insight at all, attributes the trouble not to his choices to participate in a kidnapping with some psycho murderer partner, but to "circumstances." It wasn't anything he did. It was a force majeure. (Force majeure is a legal term for forces that are beyond your control that free you up from responsibility from some contractual agreement.)
JERRY: No, I— they don't want— they're just supposed to be dealin' with me, they were real clear. Ya know, they said no one listenin' in, they'll be watchin', ya know. Maybe it's all bull, but like you said, Stan, they're callin' the shots.
One thing Jerry didn't anticipate is how aggressive his father-in-law Wade would be in trying to find his kidnapped daughter. Wade's headstrong attempt to deliver the ransom money is just one of the major ways that Jerry's scheme starts to spiral out of control, another unintended consequence of his choices.
WADE: Damn it! I want to be a part of this thing!
JERRY: No, Wade! They were real clear! They said they'd call tomorrow with instructions and it's gonna be delivered by me alone!
This is just another example of what was noted above. But, it's also important to consider Wade's choices. He wants to take a bigger role in recovering his daughter (can't blame him), yet he can't anticipate that it will get him killed. It's a reckless choice.
[MIKE slides out of his booth to sit next to Marge]
MARGE No, I— Mike—why doncha sit over there, I'd prefer that.
Here's a very small interchange that illustrates how Marge's life is governed by small choices all along the way. She nips a potential problem in the bud by not allowing the situation with Mike to get out of hand.
This is a true story.
The events in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.
At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.
Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
In fact, the movie is not a true story. It's basically a work of fiction even though there are some real-life crimes that inspired it. But, by claiming that it's true, the Coens naturally change the way we approach the movie.
CARL: Keep it still back there, lady, or else we're gonna have to, ya know, to shoot ya.
Carl's threat is made oddly self-conscious when he throws in the little "ya know." He's improvising. Again, not exactly the smooth criminal we're used to seeing in movies. He doesn't seem the murderous type, more a small-time crook who gets mixed up with a seriously murderous type.
JERRY: This was supposed to be a no-rough-stuff type deal.
Jerry can't believe these idiot criminals are messing things up. We can't believe that Jerry thought this could ever be a no-rough-stuff type deal. It's the stereotypically Minnesotan idea that everything will turn out okay—but turned on its head because of the bizarre nature of the situation.
CARL: I guess you think, ya know, you're some kind of an authority figure. With that stupid fucking uniform. Huh, buddy? King Clip-on Tie here. Big fucking man, huh? You know, these are the limits of your life, man. Ruler of your little fucking gate here. There's your four dollars, you pathetic piece of shit.
Carl's hatred of authority is part of his sociopathic criminality. For a criminal, he has zero cool whatsoever.
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. 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. Now, I saw some rough stuff on your priors, but nothing in the nature of a homicide. I know you don't want to be an accessory to something like that. So you think you might remember who those folks were who called ya?
Marge delivers what is essentially a threat in a thoroughly cheery and polite tone. It's a great example of "Minnesota Nice." Shep's another criminal who doesn't really seem that competent, hasn't exactly thought things through. The way he reacts to this visit is by beating the crap out of Carl with a belt.
MR. MOHRA: Then he calls me a jerk and says the last guy who thought he was a jerk is dead now. So, I don't say nothin'. He says, "What do ya think about that?" And I says, "Well, that don't sound like too good a deal for him, then."
Gotta love Mohra's Minnesotan understatement. Although presumably smarter than Gaear, Carl isn't that bright either. After committing a triple-homicide, he casually threatens a local bartender with murder, drawing attention and suspicion on himself in the process. Guy doesn't know how to lay low.
CARL: Hold on. No fuckin' way! You fuckin' notice this?! I got fuckin' shot!! I got fuckin' shot in the face!! I went and got the fuckin' money! I got shot fuckin' pickin' it up! I've been up for thirty-six fuckin' hours! I'm takin' that fuckin' car! That fucker's mine, ya fuckin' asshole. Ya know, I've been listenin' to your fuckin' bullshit all week. Are we square? Are we square? Yeah, ya fuckin' mute. And if you see your friend Shep Proudfoot, tell him I'm gonna nail his fuckin' ass!
Carl's foul-mouthed freak-out is an evident factor in provoking Gaear to kill him. We already know that Gaear killed Jean because she was too noisy. Again, the dude just has no cool for a criminal. He doesn't think long-term and he's completely unable to foresee the way other people might react to the things he says and does. Gaear's just told him seconds before that he killed Jean for being too noisy. Ya think he'd shut up.
MARGE: And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.
More hilarious Minnesota understatement. Infamously, that's the way Gaear disposes of Carl's corpse—putting it through a wood chipper. It might seem clever, but it's actually spraying Carl's bloody remains all over the snow. If Gaear was smart, he probably would've just buried Carl in an unmarked grave, or just left the cabin and driven off.
WADE: He just ate—he didn't finish! He's goin' to McDonalds instead of finishin' here.
JEAN: He sees his friends there. It's okay.
WADE: It's okay? Whaddya think they do there? They don't drink milkshakes, I assure you.
JEAN: It's okay, Dad!
Wade's a domineering grandfather, it seems—a patriarch, an authority. Here, he's stridently questioning a pretty mild parenting decision on Jean's part. Wade's used to getting his way in the family, something which will cause major problems later on.
JERRY: I'm askin' you here, Wade. This could work out real good for me and Jean and Scotty.
WADE: Jean and Scotty'll never have to worry.
Wade implies that he doesn't really care about Jerry. Wade's daughter and grandson won't need to worry, since he'll support them. This shows us that Jerry doesn't need the money from the kidnapping to help support his family. He's just trying to dig himself out of some trouble he got himself into that he can't reveal to his wife. Carl asks Jerry a good question: why doesn't he just ask Wade for a loan rather than arranging his wife's kidnapping? The answer's complicated.
[A morning-show host in an apron stands behind a counter on a kitchen set. Jean Lundegaard is curled up on the couch with a cup of coffee, watching the television.]
The Coens write the character of Jean as a stereotypical housewife. Scotty's off to school and Jerry's at work, and she's knitting and watching daytime TV. It's a very conventional family. That is, if you define conventional as a wife who gets kidnapped and murdered and a husband who arranges it. This is part of the absurd humor of the film. Highly unusual events intrude into a very commonplace life.
STAN Okay. And Scotty, is he gonna be all right?
JERRY Yah, geez, Scotty. I'll go talk to him.
Jerry hasn't given a minute's thought to how his son might be dealing with his mother's disappearance. Just another example of how self-absorbed he is and how little clue he has as to what's good for his family
MIKE: Yah, well, I, uh... it's not that it didn't work out... Linda had leukemia. She passed away.
Mike Yanagita is lying. Linda is just a woman he was stalking, who's still alive, and whom he never married. His irrational state and non-existent marriage seem to provide a contrast with the Gundersons' very grounded existence.
WADE: Where's my damn daughter!? No Jean, no money.
Wade honestly does care about his daughter—unlike Jerry. Unfortunately, his domineering personality and fatherly protectiveness end up getting him killed.
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.
Marge is being herself—kind, optimistic, and encouraging. Her husband didn't win the painting award he wanted, but she seems genuinely proud of him and intuitively knows what to say to buck him up.
NORM: Two more months.
MARGE: Two more months.
The movie ends with these lines. With the crime solved and the chaos behind them, Marge and Norm anticipate the arrival of their baby. The happy family they look forward to is the antithesis of the totally destroyed family of Jerry Lundegaard.
CARL: What kind trouble are you in, Jerry?
JERRY: Well, that's... that's... I'm not go inta, inta... see, I just need money. Now, her dad's real well off.
We never learn the nature of the original debt Jerry needs to pay off: the Coens kept it intentionally obscure. But obviously he's willing to hatch some dangerous, crazy plan to get money.
JERRY: Well, it's all just part of this - they don't know I need it, see. Okay, so there's that. And even if they did, I wouldn't get it. So there's that on top, then. See, these're personal matters.
CARL: Personal matters.
JERRY: Yah. Personal matters that needn't, uh –
CARL: Okay, Jerry. You're tasking us to perform this mission, but you, you won't, uh, you won't—aw, fuck it, let's take a look at that Ciera.
Carl's greed makes him overlook Jerry's secrecy about his motivations for the kidnapping. If he would've pushed, he might have seen that Jerry was a pretty desperate and pathetic guy who hasn't thought this through at all; he could have backed out of the scheme. But he wants the car.
JERRY: No, see, I don't need a finder's fee, I need a... finder's fee's, what, ten percent? Heck, that's not gonna do it for me. I need the principal!
STAN: Jerry, we're not just going to give you seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars!
Jerry's hoping he can pay off his debt through this deal, instead of going through with the kidnapping scheme. Jerry's not satisfied with Wade's offer; he wants the whole enchilada. We don't know how generous Wade's offer would be, but given his business savvy, not to mention his feelings about Jerry, maybe Jerry knows it wouldn't as much as he needs.
WADE: Well, look, I don't want to cut you out of the loop, but this here's a good deal. I assume, if you're not interested, you won't mind if we move on it. Independently.
It's hard to say what Wade should've done in this case. Technically, he's offering to give Jerry a certain amount of money, but it's not enough and it might not be in proportion to what Jerry actually did by bringing the investment to his attention. Wade doesn't realize that he's effectively dooming himself and his family, causing Jerry to move forward with the kidnapping plan.
CARL: Jesus. Well, it doesn't matter. I got the money. All of it. All eighty grand.
Carl's lying to Gaear. In reality, he found a million dollars in Wade's suitcase and hid it in the snow. "Well, it doesn't matter," is Carl's comment about Jean's murder. It doesn't matter because they don't need a live Jean to collect the ransom anymore. She's no longer necessary.
CARL: How the fuck do you split a car, ya dummy? With a fuckin' chainsaw?
GAEAR: One of us pays the other for half.
Gaear kills Carl after this argument over a car because Carl flips out and escalates the argument. But Carl just stolea million dollars. The car should've been a non-issue at that point, ya' think? Greed has totally taken over.
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.
Marge probably does understand it. She's a savvy cop who's probably seen plenty of "malfeasance" over money in her day. But it's so far out of her own value system that she's still amazed when it happens.
CARL: Shep said you'd be here at 7:30. What gives now?
JERRY: Shep said 8:30.
CARL: We've been sitting here an hour. He's peed three times already.
They're already off to a bad start, failing to communicate correctly before they even start to set up the kidnapping scheme. This discussion sets up the bizarre and random relationship between Jerry and the kidnappers he's hired. He knows nothing about them and this interchange predicts the later trouble.
GAEAR: I need unguent!
Given how thrifty Gaear is with words, and his tough guy manner, it sounds bizarre to hear him demand unguent after Jean bites him. He even rifles through the Lundegaard's medicine cabinet looking for it instead of trying to find Jean. It's a dissonant and weird note in the whole kidnapping scene.
[Marge suddenly doubles over, putting her head between her knees down near the snow.]
LOU: Ya' see something down there, Chief?
MARGE: Uh, I just, I think I'm gonna barf.
LOU: Geez, you okay, Margie?
MARGE: I'm fine, it's just morning sickness.
This is a pretty hilarious juxtaposition of Marge's role as police chief and her status as a very pregnant woman. She's not looking on the ground for evidence or getting sick from the sight of two bloody murder victims.
HOOKER #1: Well, the little guy, he was kinda funny-looking.
MARGE: In what way?
HOOKER #1: I dunno, just funny-lookin'.
MARGE: Can you be any more specific?
HOOKER #1: I couldn't really say. He wasn't circumcised.
MARGE: Was he funny lookin' apart from that?
HOOKER #1: Yeah.
The hooker knows what Carl looks like but just doesn't understand how to describe it in a way that's helpful to Marge's investigation.
HOOKER #2: He was a little older. You know, looked like the Marlboro Man.
MARGE: Oh yah?
HOOKER #2: Yah. But maybe I'm sayin' that, you know, cause he smoked Marlboros.
HOOKER #2: You know, like a subconscious-type thing.
Gaear, most people would agree, looks nothing like any version of the Marlboro Man, the ruggedly handsome cowboy pitchman for Marlboro cigarettes. So, she's right: it probably was a "subconscious-type thing." What's also absurd is that the hooker, who's been portrayed as kind of brainless, would go all intellectual on Marge and try to impress her with her sophistication. What's even more absurd is that several of the Marlboro man models died of diseases related to smoking.
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: No. No, they never married. Mike's had psychiatric problems.
MARGE: Oh. Oh, my.
In the movie's weirdest and most baffling digression, Marge catches up with an old classmate, Mike Yanagita, who unsuccessfully tries hitting on her before claiming his wife has died of leukemia. This turns out to be totally false; Mike's just suffering from mental problems. But why is it in the movie? Maybe to counterpoint Marge's own domestic happiness? Is it just there?
MARGE: There's more to life than 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.
Marge is talking to a guy who just murdered five people in cold blood including his accomplice. This statement really lays out the philosophy of absurdism in its classic sense: the idea that the search for meaning is pointless because there isn't any meaning. Marge can't understand it because there's nothing to understand. Gaear says nothing because there's nothing to say. The experience of watching the movie can be disorienting for this reason, so it's better to just go with the flow and not ask "why" because there's no "why."
This snowy, barren, endless landscape that opens and permeates the film is the image of Minnesota the Coens want to leave us with. Having grown up there, they know it well. As we mentioned in our "Symbols" section, they describe it as like Siberia, but with more family restaurants. The locals are smart—they're bundled up against the cold in oversized parkas and fur hoods. Carl and Gaear don't have that protection. They're outsiders and don't know the weather or aren't smart enough to deal with it. The desolate white landscapes give the film an eerie feeling. No wonder Marge and Norm like to cozy up under the covers.
GAEAR: We stop at Pancakes House.
CARL: What are ya nuts? We had pancakes for breakfast. I want to go somewhere I can get a shot and a beer, and a steak, maybe. No more fuckin' pancakes, c'mon man. C'mon man! Okay here's an idea. We'll stop outside of Brainerd. I know a place there we can get laid. What do ya think?"
When you're in the North Country, eating pancakes is a classic move—just like Paul Bunyan did. This hulking sociopath having a hankering for pancakes is one of the absurdist elements that the Coens throw in.
MARGE: Yah. Yah. Home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
This is Brainerd's claim to fame, hosting a famous American tall tale. It's a small place, but this helps give it some kind of folkloric distinction. We also see evidence of the North Country in Marge's "yah." You'll hear tons of them.
JERRY: You goin' to the Gophers on Sunday?
SALESMAN: Oh, you betcha.
JERRY: You wouldn't happen to have an extra ticket?
SALESMAN: You kiddin'!?
Before the Minnesota Wild NHL team came to Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota's hockey team (the Golden Gophers) formed the center of the hockey-loving culture in the North Country. They're still extremely popular. You betcha everyone goes. Jerry knows that Gopher tickets would be something anyone in town would want.
MARGE: Oh, you betcha. Yah.
This is just one classic example of the exaggerated Minnesotan accent used throughout the movie. Apparently, it derives from the way Scandinavian settlers in the region ended up speaking English. "Yah" does sound a lot like the Swedish word "Ja," after all. The directors used the book How to Talk Minnesotan as their dialect guide. It's hilarious, btw. Or, as the locals would say, "not too bad."
MIKE: Ya know, it's the Radisson, so it's pretty good.
The fact that Mike thinks the Radisson is pretty good might be a snobby little gag. Radisson is a mid-level hotel chain, not generally considered to be a high-end place.
MR. MOHRA: Yah, right-o. Well, so, I'm tendin' bar down there at Ecklund & Swedlund's last Tuesday and this little guy's drinkin' and he says, "So where can a guy find some action? I'm goin' crazy out there at the lake." And I says, "What kinda action?" And he says, "Woman action, what do I look like?" And I says, "Well, what do I look like? I don't arrange that kinda thing." And he says, "But I'm goin' crazy out there at the lake," and I says, "Yah, but this ain't that kinda place."
Not only does Mr. Mohra have a strong Minnesotan accent, but he also expresses the hometown morals of the place. Carl's search for a prostitute shocks Mohra's sense of propriety. Another Minnesotan gem is when the cop and Mohra, bundled up and buried in parkas against the weather, comment that tomorrow, it's gonna get cold.