Fargo (film)

Fargo is a 1996 black comedy thriller film written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Frances McDormand stars as Marge Gunderson, a pregnant Minnesota police chief investigating roadside homicides that ensue after a desperate car salesman (William H. Macy) hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife in order to extort a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell). The film was an international co-production between the United States and United Kingdom.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoel Coen
Produced byEthan Coen
Written by
  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
Music byCarter Burwell
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Edited by
Distributed byGramercy Pictures
Release date
  • March 8, 1996 (1996-03-08) (United States)
  • May 31, 1996 (1996-05-31) (United Kingdom)
Running time
98 minutes[1]
  • United Kingdom[2]
  • United States[2]
Budget$7 million[3]
Box office$60.6 million[3]

Fargo premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where Joel Coen won the festival's Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director Award) and the film was nominated for the Palme d'Or. A critical and commercial success, Fargo received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. McDormand received the Academy Award for Best Actress and the Coens won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

The film was selected in 2006 for preservation in the National Film Registry of the United States by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"—one of only six films so designated in its first year of eligibility.[4] In 1998, the American Film Institute named it one of the 100 greatest American films in history. A Coen-produced FX television series of the same name, inspired by Fargo and taking place in the same fictional universe, premiered in 2014 and received critical acclaim.[5]


In the winter of 1987, Jerry Lundegaard, the sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis, is desperate for money. He floats a GMAC loan worth $320,000, which he collateralizes with nonexistent vehicles and is unable to pay back. On the advice of the dealership mechanic (and paroled ex-convict) Shep Proudfoot, Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota and hires small-time criminals Gaear Grimsrud and Carl Showalter to kidnap his wife, Jean, and extort a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law and dealership boss, Wade Gustafson. Payment would be a new car, and half of the $80,000 ransom.

Jerry pitches Wade a lucrative real estate deal, and believes Wade has agreed to front him $750,000. Jerry tries to get Shep to call off the kidnapping but is unsuccesful. Jerry later goes to a meeting with Wade where he learns that Wade plans to make the deal himself, giving Jerry only a finder's fee. At Jerry's home, Carl and Gaear carry out the arranged kidnapping. As they transport Jean to their remote cabin on Moose Lake, a state trooper pulls them over outside Brainerd for driving without temporary tags. Carl's attempt to bribe the trooper fails, and when the trooper hears a sound from the back seat where Jean is tied up, Gaear kills him, then chases down two eyewitnesses and shoots them dead as well.

The following morning, pregnant Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson discovers that the dead trooper was ticketing a car with dealer plates and that later, two men driving a dealership vehicle checked into the nearby Blue Ox Motel with two call girls and later placed a call to Proudfoot. After questioning the prostitutes, Gunderson drives to Wade's dealership, where Proudfoot feigns ignorance and Jerry insists no cars are missing. While in Minneapolis, Marge reconnects with Mike Yanagita, an old classmate. Yanagita awkwardly and aggressively tries to romance Marge, before breaking down, saying his wife has died. Marge learns the following morning that Yanagita was lying.

Jerry informs Wade that the kidnappers have demanded $1 million and will deal only through him. Meanwhile, Carl, in light of the complication of three murders, demands that Jerry hand over the entire $80,000. GMAC gives Jerry just 24 hours to prove the existence of the vehicles or face legal consequences.

Carl is beaten by a furious Proudfoot for bringing him under suspicion. Carl orders Jerry to deliver the ransom immediately, but Wade insists on making the money drop himself, driving to meet Carl carrying a loaded revolver. At the drop location in a Minneapolis parking garage, Wade tells Carl he will not hand over the money without seeing Jean, but does not yet display his concealed weapon. An enraged Carl pulls a gun and shoots and kills Wade, but not before Wade shoots Carl in the jaw, severely wounding him. After fleeing the scene, Carl is astounded to discover that the briefcase contains $1 million. He removes $80,000 to split with Gaear, then buries the rest alongside the highway. At the cabin, Gaear has killed Jean; Carl says they must split up and leave the state immediately. Carl and Gaear get into a heated argument over who will keep the car, with Carl using his injury as justification. In response, Gaear kills Carl with an axe.

Reflecting on Yanagita's convincing lies, Marge returns to Gustafson's dealership. Jerry continues to insist that he is not missing any cars. Marge asks him to check the inventory, then spots him fleeing the dealership, and calls the State Police. The next morning, she drives to Moose Lake on a tip from a local bar owner who had reported a "funny-looking guy" bragging about killing someone. Outside a cabin, she finds the car; nearby, Gaear is feeding Carl's dismembered body into a woodchipper. Gaear attempts to flee on foot, only for Marge to shoot him in the leg and arrest him. North Dakota police arrest Jerry at a motel outside Bismarck.

Marge's husband Norm, whose mallard painting has been selected for a 3-cent postage stamp, complains that his friend's painting will be on the first class stamp. Marge reassures Norm that lots of people use 3-cent stamps, in particular when the price of postage increases and they need to make up the difference; the two happily anticipate the birth of their child in two months.



Claims of factual basis

The film opens with the following text:

This is a true story. The events depicted 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.

Closing credits bear the standard all persons fictitious disclaimer for a work of fiction.[6] Regarding this apparent discrepancy, the Coen brothers claimed that they based their script on an actual criminal event, but wrote a fictional story around it. "We weren't interested in that kind of fidelity," said Joel Coen. "The basic events are the same as in the real case, but the characterizations are fully imagined ... If an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept."[7]

The brothers have modified their explanation more than once. In 1996, Joel Coen told a reporter that—contrary to the opening graphic—the actual murders were not committed in Minnesota.[8][9] Many Minnesotans speculated that the story was inspired by T. Eugene Thompson, a St. Paul attorney who was convicted of hiring a man to murder his wife in 1963, near the Coens' hometown of St. Louis Park; but the Coens claimed that they had never heard of Thompson. After Thompson's death in 2015, Joel Coen changed the explanation again: "[The story was] completely made up. Or, as we like to say, the only thing true about it is that it's a story."[10]

The film's special edition DVD contains yet another account, that the film was inspired by the 1986 murder of Helle Crafts from Connecticut at the hands of her husband, Richard, who disposed of her body through a wood chipper.[11]


The Coens initially considered William H. Macy for a smaller role, but they were so impressed by his reading that they asked Macy to come back in and read for the role of Jerry. According to Macy, he was very persistent in getting the role, saying: "I found out that they [the Coen brothers] were auditioning in New York still, so I got my jolly, jolly Lutheran ass on an airplane and walked in and said, 'I want to read again because I'm scared you're going to screw this up and hire someone else.' I actually said that. You know, you can't play that card too often as an actor. Sometimes it just blows up in your face, but I said, 'Guys, this is my role. I want this.'"[12] Ethan Coen later remarked, "I don't think either of us [Coen brothers] realised what a tough acting challenge we were handing Bill Macy with this part. Jerry's a fascinating mix of the completely ingenuous and the utterly deceitful. Yet he's also guileless; even though he set these horrible events in motion, he's surprised when they go wrong."[13]

The parts of Marge Gunderson, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud were written with their respective actors in mind. Peter Stormare, who played the role of Gaear was supposed to play the part of Eddie Dane in the Coens' earlier film Miller's Crossing, but was unable to commit due to commitments to a stage production of Hamlet. When he was not filming, he would visit neighboring places with Swedish sounding names. Stormare noted that his character was different from his real life personality.

At first, Frances McDormand was excited about working with the Coens, but was rather surprised when she found out that they wrote Marge for her. McDormand felt that what separated Marge from other female characters written by the Coens is that the latter fell short. She learned how to use and fire a gun and spent days talking with a police officer that was pregnant much like Marge and also developed a backstory for her character along with John Carroll Lynch. After seeing the movie, McDormand noted that much of Marge was modeled after her sister Dorothy who is a Disciples of Christ minister and chaplain.[14][15][15]


The film's illustrations of "Minnesota nice" and distinctive regional accents and expressions made a lasting impression on audiences; years later, locals reported continuing to field tourist requests to say "Yah, you betcha", and other tag lines from the movie.[16] Dialect coach Liz Himelstein maintained that "the accent was another character". She coached the cast using audio tapes and field trips.[17] Another dialect coach, Larissa Kokernot (who also played one of the prostitutes), noted that the "small-town, Minnesota accent is close to the sound of the Nords and the Swedes", which is "where the musicality comes from". She taught McDormand "Minnesota nice" and the characteristic head-nodding to show agreement.[18] The strong accent spoken by Macy's and McDormand's characters, which was exaggerated for effect, is less common in the Twin Cities, where over 60% of the state's population lives. The Minneapolis and St. Paul dialect is characterized by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which is also found in other places in the Northern United States as far east as Rochester, New York.[16]


Fargo was filmed during the winter of 1995, mainly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and around Pembina County, North Dakota.[19] Due to unusually low snowfall totals in central and southern Minnesota that winter, scenes requiring snow-covered landscapes had to be shot in northern Minnesota and northeastern North Dakota, though not in or near the actual towns of Fargo and Brainerd.[20]

Jerry's initial meeting with Carl and Gaear was shot at a pool hall and bar called The King of Clubs in the northeast section of Minneapolis.[21] It was demolished in 2003, along with most other buildings on that block of Central Avenue, and replaced by low-income housing.[22] Gustafson's auto dealership was actually Wally McCarthy Oldsmobile in Richfield, a southern suburb of Minneapolis. The site is now occupied by Best Buy's national corporate headquarters. The 24' foot Paul Bunyan statue was built for the film along 101st Street NE (near the corner of 143rd Avenue NE) west of Bathgate, North Dakota. The statue was dismantled after filming was completed. The Blue Ox motel/truckstop was Stockmen's Truck Stop in South St. Paul, which is still in business. Ember's, the restaurant where Carl discussed the ransom drop with Gustafson, was located in St. Louis Park, the Coens' hometown; the building now houses a medical outpatient treatment center.[23]

The Lakeside Club, where Marge interviewed the two younger women, was a family restaurant—now closed—in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. The kidnappers' Moose Lake hideout actually stood on the shore of Square Lake, near May, Minnesota. The cabin was relocated to Barnes, Wisconsin in 2002. The Edina police station where the interior police headquarters scenes were filmed is still in operation, but has been completely rebuilt. The Carlton Celebrity Room was an actual venue in Bloomington, Minnesota, and José Feliciano did once appear there, but it had been closed for almost ten years when filming began. The Feliciano scene was shot at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre in Chanhassen, near Minneapolis.[23] The ransom drop was filmed in two adjacent parking garages on South 8th Street in downtown Minneapolis. Scenes in the Lundegaards' kitchen were shot in a private home on Pillsbury Avenue in Minneapolis,[24] and the house where Mr. Mohra described the "funny looking little guy" to police is in Hallock, in northwest Minnesota. The motel “outside of Bismarck”, where the police finally catch up with Jerry, is the Hitching Post Motel in Forest Lake, north of Minneapolis.[23]

While none of Fargo was actually filmed in Fargo, the Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau exhibits original script copies and several props used in the film, including the wood chipper prop.[23] After the movie's release, by some accounts, Brainerd was invaded by shovel-toting moviegoers searching for the buried ransom cash, inspired by the dubious "based-on-a-true-story" announcement in the opening credits. In 2001, a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi was found frozen to death near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. A rumor emerged that she had been searching for the buried money, but her death was actually ruled a suicide.[25]


Critical response

Fargo holds a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 92 reviews, with an average rating of 8.68/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Violent, quirky, and darkly funny, Fargo delivers an original crime story and a wonderful performance by McDormand".[26] The film scores 85 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 24 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".[27]

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both ranked Fargo as the best film of 1996.[28] Ebert called it "one of the best films I've ever seen", adding that "films like Fargo are why I love the movies". He later ranked it fourth on his list of the best films of the 1990s.[29]

Fargo was ranked 84th on the American Film Institute's "100 Years...100 Movies" list in 1998 (although it was removed from the 2007 version) and 93rd on "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" list. The Marge Gunderson character was ranked 33rd on "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains".

In 2010, the Independent Film & Television Alliance selected the film as one of its "30 Most Significant Independent Films" of the last 30 years.[30]

Film festivals

Fargo premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the competition's highest honor, the Palme d'Or. Joel Coen won the top directorial award, the Prix de la mise en scène. Subsequent notable screenings included the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, and the Naples Film Festival.[31]

In 2006, the sixth annual Fargo Film Festival marked Fargo's tenth anniversary by projecting the movie on a gigantic screen mounted on the north side of Fargo's tallest building, the Radisson Hotel.[32]





Fargo/Barton Fink: Music by Carter Burwell
Soundtrack album by
ReleasedMay 28, 1996
GenreFilm score
Coen brothers film soundtracks chronology
The Hudsucker Proxy
Fargo/Barton Fink: Music by Carter Burwell
The Big Lebowski

As with all the Coen brothers' films, except O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the score to Fargo is by Carter Burwell.[36]

The main musical motif is based on a Norwegian folk song, The Lost Sheep (Norwegian: Den bortkomne sauen).[37]

Other songs featured in the film include: "Big City" by Merle Haggard, heard in the King of Clubs while Jerry meets with Carl and Gaear; "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" by Boy George, which plays in the garage as Shep works, and "Let's Find Each Other Tonight", a live nightclub performance by José Feliciano that is viewed by Carl and a female escort. In the diner, when Jerry is urging Wade not to get police involved in his wife's kidnapping, Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good" can be heard faintly in the background. An instrumental version of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" plays during the scene where Marge and Norm are eating at a buffet. The restaurant scene with Mike Yanagita is accompanied by a piano arrangement of "Sometimes in Winter" by Blood, Sweat & Tears. All the songs heard in the film are featured only as background music, usually on a radio, and do not appear on the soundtrack album.

The soundtrack was released in 1996 on TVT Records, combined with selections from the score to Barton Fink.[36]

Track listing

1."Fargo, North Dakota"2:47
2."Moose Lake"0:41
3."A Lot of Woe"0:49
4."Forced Entry"1:23
5."The Ozone"0:57
6."The Trooper's End"1:06
7."Chewing on It"0:51
9."Dance of the Sierra"1:23
10."The Mallard"0:58
12."Bismarck, North Dakota"1:02
13."Paul Bunyan"0:35
14."The Eager Beaver"3:10
15."Brainerd Minnesota"2:40
16."Safe Keeping"1:41
Total length:43:15

Home video releases

Fargo has been released in several formats: VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes download.[38] The first home video release of the film was on November 19, 1996 on a pan and scan cassette. A collector's edition widescreen VHS was also released and included a snow globe that depicted the woodchipper scene which, when shaken, stirred up both snow and "blood".[39] PolyGram Filmed Entertainment released Fargo on DVD on July 8, 1997.[40] In 1999, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who acquired the rights to the film through their purchase of Polygram's pre-March 31, 1996 library, released the film on VHS as part of its "Contemporary Classics" series. A "Special Edition" DVD was released on September 30, 2003 by MGM Home Entertainment. The release featured minor changes to the film, particularly with its subtitles. The opening titles stating "This is a true story" have been changed in this edition from the actual titles on the film print to digitally inserted titles. Also, the subtitle preceding Lundegaard's arrest "Outside of Bismarck, North Dakota" has been inserted digitally and moved from the bottom of the screen to the top.[40] The special edition of Fargo was repackaged in several Coen brothers box sets and also as a double feature DVD with other MGM releases. A Blu-ray version was released on May 12, 2009 and later in a DVD combo pack in 2010.[41] On April 1, 2014, in commemoration for the 90th anniversary of MGM, the film was remastered in 4K and reissued again on Blu-ray.[41] In August 2017, Shout! Factory released a 20th anniversary collector's Steelbook edition on Blu-ray, limited to 10,000 copies.

Television series

In 1997, a pilot was filmed for an intended television series based on the film. Set in Brainerd shortly after the events of the film, it starred Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson and Bruce Bohne reprising his role as Officer Lou. It was directed by Kathy Bates and featured no involvement from the Coen brothers. The episode aired in 2003 during Trio's Brilliant But Cancelled series of failed TV shows.[42]

A follow-up TV series inspired by the film, with the Coens as executive producers,[43] debuted on FX in April 2014.[44] The first season received acclaim from both critics and audiences.[44][45][46][47] Existing in the same fictional continuity as the film, each season features a different story, cast, and decade-setting. In season one, the episode "Eating the Blame" reintroduces the buried ransom money for a minor three-episode subplot.[48][49] Two further seasons have been made thus far.

See also

  • Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter—a film about a young Japanese woman who becomes obsessed with Fargo, believing the events it depicts to be real


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  15. https://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/17/movies/how-frances-mcdormand-got-into-minnesota-nice.html
  16. McMacken, Robin (May 9, 2004). "North Dakota: Where the accent is on friendship". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  17. Laura Randall (March 26, 2004). "She Accentuates Film Performances". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  18. Chris Hewitt (October 19, 2005). "Forget `Fargo' – actors put accent on Minnesota realism". St. Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  19. Dwyer, M. "Lepage Leaps Into the Limelight". The Irish Times (May 31, 1996), p. 11.
  20. Ebert, R. "'Sleepers' Casts Faith to Wind." Chicago Sun-Times (October 18, 1996), p. 23.
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  35. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies" (PDF). American Film Institute. 1998. Retrieved August 21, 2016.
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Further reading

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