Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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100 Years, 66 Villains: #3. Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 29, 2008

Now that 100 Years, 100 Villains has gotten to the very bottom of the barrel, the abbreviated write-ups that have populated these lists so far are simply unsifficient. Stay tuned this week as we count down the top six in proper fashion.

I’d like to say that Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo was the part that William H. Macy was born to play. The morally bankrupt, constantly panicking and yet severely unthreatening Jerry is, after all, a part as suited to Macy’s strengths as an actor as is humanly possible. Yet, take a second to look over Macy’s resume. Little Bill in Boogie Nights. George Parker in Pleasantville. Bernie Lut zin The Cooler. Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in Magnolia. Edmond in Edmond. Point is–has William H. Macy ever once played a character that he wasn’t born to play? In fact, with the possible exception of fellow loser occasional castmate Philip Seymour Hoffman, has there ever been an actor more suited to his filmography than Macy? Maybe it’s not so much that Jerry was the part Macy was born to play, as Macy was the actor the Coen Brothers were born to write Jerry for–probably the most pathetic character ever portrayed in film.

Jerry isn’t a pure villain the way some characters are on this list, and in fact, I wouldn’t even go so far as to call him evil–he’s not a good guy, but he’s not a sociopath either, and he generally (I mean really, really generally) means well. And what’s more, he’s almost compulsively relateable–in most other movies he’d be the good guy, the little guy who got pushed too far by his bullying, unsympathetic father-in-law and decides to get some revenge on him. But Fargo is pretty fucking far from most movies, and Jerry still might be more despicable than any other character on this list, because of his unbelievably thoughtless selfishness, his lack of foresight bordering on sheer idiocy, and his almost sickening weakness of character.

The plot of the movie, on paper, is a fairly standard sort of neo-noir skeleton–businessman in debt pays some thugs to kidnap his wife to extort some money from his rich, incompassionate father-in-law. But there’s nothing about Fargo that falls under such easy classification, and least of all Jerry’s character–the movie is taken far too much from his perspective and has too many other legitimate Bad Guys prowling the perimeter to qualify him as a straight villain, but he’s not heroic enough to even qualify as any sort of anti-hero. He just sets the plans in motion on their disastrous course, and then just stands back, too ineffectual to do anything to correct them, and acts shocked when things go horribly awry.

Take the scene where Jerry’s supposed to deliver father-in-law Wade’s (Harve Presnell) hostage payoff to Carl (Steve Buscemi), the last part of a plan that should have ended in Jerry and Carl splitting the money, Jerry’s wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) returning home safely, and all going back to normal. Wade, aging alpha male, gets it into his head (and not without justification) that Jerry’s going to fuck it up if he makes the drop, so despite Carl’s “instructions” that Jerry had to be the one to do so, Wade decides to make the drop himself. If Wade does this, the chances of the plans working out pretty much drop to 0, and Jerry has to know this. Yet, aside from some minor protesting, he lets Wade have his way, leading to the death of pretty much everyone in question and resulting in Jerry getting stuck with nothing. Not only does his carelessness and weakness result in tragedy, but he’s too stupid to even put himself in a position to take advantage of it.

And oh yeah, there’s the whole letting-murderous-thugs-kidnap-his-wife thing. It seems like Jerry doesn’t even see at all how this could turn out to be a big deal, how even if his wife somehow came back from the experience physically unscathed, spending a few weeks tied and gagged with a couple psychopaths might not be such a negligible experience. Not to mention the effect it might have on his poor, poor son Scotty (Tony Denman), who as a result of Jerry’s actions, ends the movie with a murdered mother, a murdered grandfather, and a disgraced father on the lam. You can see the surprise in Jerry’s face the first scene he spends with an emotionally distraught Scotty after Jean is kidnapped, as if he really wants to ask him “Wow, you mean you actually care about Mom that much? I never would’ve thought!”

The final shot of Jerry, poorly shaven and in his underwear, trying to escape the cops by crawling out his hotel room window, is the most perfectly disgusting way to summarize his character as possible. He’s like all four Yellow Brick Road travelers in one–cowardly, stupid, heartless, and completely out of his element. His cringe-worthy arrest scene is exactly how his character’s arc should have ended, since even being chopped up in a woodchipper is a cooler fate than Jerry deserves.

66. Ian / Ray (Tim Robbins), High Fidelity
65. Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), The Last Picture Show
64. Jesus’s Entourage (Bill Nunn, Rosario Dawson, Arthur J. Nascarella), He Got Game
63. Sarah Mitchell (Bridget Fonda), A Simple Plan
62. Agents Big Johnson and Little Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush), Die Hard
61. Taylor Vaughn (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe), She’s All That
60. Coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), Varsity Blues
59. Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), Pretty Woman
58. Mrs. Chasen (Vivien Pickles), Harold and Maude
57. Officer Coffey and Officer Graham (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson and Kirk Kinder), Boyz n the Hood
56. Oliver Slocumb (Ryan Philippe), Igby Goes Down
55. Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), Magnolia
54. Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), This Is Spinal Tap
53. Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), The Cooler
52. Muriel Lang (Rosie Perez), It Could Happen to You
51. Zachary “Sack” Lodge (Bradley Cooper), Wedding Crashers
50. Bert Jones (George C. Scott), The Hustler
49. Little Bill’s Wife (Nina Hartley), Boogie Nights
48. Amber (Elisa Donovan), Clueless
47. Warden (Patrick McGoohan), Escape From Alcatraz
46. Various Game Ruiners (Clifton James, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Rooker, Richard Edson, Kevin Tighe, John Anderson, Don Harvey), Eight Men Out
45. Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), The Craft
44. Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), The Ice Storm
43. George Willis Jr. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Scent of a Woman
42. David Bedford (John Laroquette), Blind Date
41. Ronny and Donny Blume (Ronnie & Keith McCowley), Rushmore
40. Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg), Searching for Bobby Fischer
39. Bernie and Joan (Jim Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins), …About Last Night
38. Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), Kramer Vs. Kramer
37. Principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
36. Bill Houston (David Morse), Dancer in the Dark
35. Sid (Voice of John Morris), Toy Story
34. Mike (Joe Mantegna), House of Games
33. Buck Grotowski (Peter Boyle), Monsters’ Ball
32. Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels), The Purple Rose of Cairo
31. Kitty Farmer (Beth Grant), Donnie Darko
30. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), Office Space
29. Mitch Hiller (Billy Campbell), Enough
28. Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), The Virgin Suicides
27. Rose Chasseur (Glynis Johns), The Ref
26. Cobra Kai Dojo (William Zabka, Martin Kove, others), The Karate Kid
25. Heathers (Shannon Doherty, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk), Heathers
24. Cal Hockley (Billy Zane, Titanic
23. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
22. Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore
21. Jo (Gretchen Mol), Rounders
20. Ruth Folwer (Sissy Spacek), In the Bedroom
19. Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavettes), Rosemary’s Baby
18. Earline and the Rest of the Fitzgerald Clan (Margo Martindale, Others), Million Dollar Baby
17. Coach Jack Reilly (Lane Smith), The Mighty Ducks
16. Jack Lopate (Thomas Hayden Church), Sideways
15. Walter Peck (William Atherton), Ghostbusters
14. Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiensen), Shattered Glass
13. Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), Ordinary People
12. Professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), Loser
11. O’Bannion, Darla & Clint (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt), Dazed and Confused
10. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), Election
9. Troy (Ethan Hawke), Reality Bites
8. Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Mean Girls
7. Steff (James Spader), Pretty in Pink
6. Biff Tannen (Michael F. Wilson), Back to the Future trilogy
5. Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith), Dead Poets Society
4. The Egan Sisters (Nicole Gelbard, Mia Weinberg, Julie Hermelin, Karen Hermelin, Lisa Spector, Hazel Mailloux and Mary Lynn Rajskub), Punch-Drunk Love
3. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), Fargo

11 Responses to “100 Years, 66 Villains: #3. Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo”

  1. My favorite thing about Jerry Lundegaard is his desperate need that somebody, ANYBODY, back him up on his plan. SOMEBODY has to back him up that what he is doing is the right idea. You get the sense that Jerry has been waiting for something like that his entire life. All he has ever wanted is his father to say he was proud of him.

    So anyway, Jerry waits all movie for someone to second his ideas, and that’s when it finally happens. His father’s business partner, Stan Grossman, finally agrees that Jerry’s opinion is probably correct about a particular issue. I forget which one it is, but I think it is about who goes to the money drop. Stan Grossman (somebody that Wade actually respects and agrees with!) sides with Jerry.

    So what does Jerry do? The entire rest of the movie, he starts throwing Stan Grossman’s name around like it’s an effing badge of honor. “Oh yeah, well if you ask Stan Grossman, he’d say the same thing.” “Oh yeah, well Stan Grossman agrees with this. You go and ask him.”

    It’s one of the most pathetic things I have ever seen. Stan Grossman becomes Jerry’s version of Mister Miyagi. He becomes his advocate on everything.

    It’s one of the reasons I loved the fact that “Stan Grossman” showed up as Greg Kinnear’s agent in the movie Little Miss Sunshine. Talk about an obscure but well deserved cameo. Apparently Stan Grossman pretty much runs Minnesota.

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