Fargo (film)

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This article is about a 1996 movie. For other uses, see Fargo.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joel Coen
Produced by Ethan Coen
Written by
  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
Music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Edited by Roderick Jaynes
Distributed by Gramercy Pictures
Release dates
  • 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]
Language English
Budget $7 million[3]
Box office $60.6 million[3]

Fargo is a 1996 American dark comedy crime thriller film written, produced, edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It stars Frances McDormand as a pregnant Minnesota police chief investigating roadside homicides that ensue after a struggling 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).

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.[4] A critical and commercial success, Fargo received seven nominations at the 69th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won two awards: McDormand won Best Actress and the Coens won Best Writing (Original Screenplay).

In 2006, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", making it one of six films to have been preserved in their first year of eligibility.[5] The American Film Institute named it one of the 100 greatest American movies of all time in 1998.

The film was followed by the FX television series created and written by Noah Hawley, with the Coen brothers acting as executive producers.[6]


In the winter of 1987, Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) is desperate for money; repayment is due on a large GMAC loan that he fraudulently collateralized with nonexistent dealership vehicles. Dealership mechanic Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis), an ex-convict, refers him to an old partner in crime, Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare). Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota, where he hires Gaear and Carl Showalter (Buscemi) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), and extort a ransom from his wealthy father-in-law and boss, Wade Gustafson (Presnell). He gives the men a new car from his dealership's lot, and promises to split the $80,000 ransom with them.

Back in Minneapolis, Jerry pitches Gustafson a lucrative real estate deal; when Gustafson agrees to front the money, Jerry attempts to call off the kidnapping, but it is already in motion. Then, he learns that Gustafson plans to make the deal himself, leaving Jerry a paltry finder's fee. Carl and Gaear kidnap Jean in Minneapolis as planned. While transporting her to their remote cabin hideout, a state trooper pulls them over outside Brainerd, Minnesota for driving without the required temporary tags over the dealership plates. After Carl tries and fails to bribe the trooper, Gaear kills him. When two passing eyewitnesses spot Carl disposing of the body, Gaear kills them as well.

The following morning, Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand), who is seven months pregnant, initiates a homicide investigation. Records from the murdered trooper's last traffic stop, along with a phone call to Proudfoot, placed at a local truck stop by two suspicious men, lead her to Jerry's dealership, where she questions Jerry and Proudfoot. While in Minneapolis, Marge reconnects with Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), an old classmate who takes her to dinner, tells her that his wife, another classmate, has died, and attempts to seduce her.

Jerry informs Gustafson and his accountant, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), that the kidnappers have demanded $1 million, and will deal only through him. Meanwhile, Carl, in light of the unanticipated complication of three murders, demands that Jerry hand over the entire ransom (which he still believes is $80,000); and GMAC gives Jerry 24 hours to repay their loan or face legal consequences.

When the time comes for the money drop, Gustafson decides to deal with the kidnappers himself. At the pre-arranged drop point in a parking garage, he refuses to hand over the cash-filled briefcase to Carl until his daughter is returned. Carl kills Gustafson, takes the briefcase, and flees, but not before taking a bullet in the jaw from Gustafson. When he opens the briefcase, Carl is astounded to discover far more than the anticipated $80,000. He removes that amount to split with Gaear, then stashes the rest, intending to return for it later and keep it for himself. At the hideout, he discovers that Gaear has killed Jean. After a heated argument over who gets the new car that Jerry gave them, Gaear kills Carl as well.

During a phone conversation with a mutual friend, Marge learns that Yanagita's dead wife was never his wife, nor is she dead, and that Yanagita is the perpetrator behind a long series of anonymous harassments. Reflecting on Yanagita's treachery and convincing lies, Marge returns to the car dealership and re-questions Jerry, who refuses to cooperate. When she asks to speak to Gustafson, Jerry panics and flees the dealership. After returning to Brainerd, Marge drives to Moose Lake, where she recognizes the dealership car from the dead trooper's description. She finds Gaear feeding the last of Carl's body into a wood chipper. He tries to escape, but Marge shoots him in the leg and arrests him. Meanwhile, North Dakota police track Jerry to a motel outside Bismarck, where he is arrested while attempting to escape through a bathroom window.

That night, Marge and her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), discuss Norm's mallard painting, which has been selected as the design for a US postage stamp. Marge is very proud of his achievement, and the two happily anticipate the birth of their child.



Factual vs. fictional[edit]

Multiple accounts exist regarding the factual (or fictional) basis for Fargo. 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, however, bear the standard "all persons fictitious" disclaimer for a work of fiction.[7]

To resolve this apparent discrepancy, the Coen brothers explained 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," Joel Coen said. "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."[8]

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.[9][10] 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.”[11]

The film's special edition DVD contains yet another account, that the film was inspired by the infamous 1986 murder of Helle Crafts from Connecticut at the hands of her husband, Richard, who disposed of her body through a wood chipper.[12]


Fargo was filmed during the winter of 1995, mainly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and around the actual town of Brainerd (which was the film's original title[13]). 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 eastern North Dakota (though not in Fargo itself).[14]

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.[15] It was later demolished, along with most other buildings on that block of Central Avenue, and replaced by low-income housing.[16] 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 "Welcome to Brainerd" Paul Bunyan statue was built for the film in the northeast corner of North Dakota, near the Canadian border. (Though several present-day Paul Bunyan statues in Minnesota and North Dakota claim to be associated with Fargo, the one actually used in the movie 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.[17]

The Lakeside Club, where Marge interviewed the hookers, 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.[17] 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,[18] 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.[17]

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.[17] After the movie's release, by some accounts, Brainerd was invaded by shovel-toting moviegoers, inspired by the dubious "based-on-a-true-story" announcement in the opening credits, searching for the buried ransom cash.[19]


The film's use of "Minnesota nice" and a "singsong" regional accent are remembered years later, with locals fielding requests to say "Yah, you betcha," and other lines from the movie.[20] According to the film's dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, "the accent was another character." She coached the cast using audio tapes and field trips.[21] Another dialogue coach, Larissa Kokernot (who appeared onscreen playing a prostitute), notes 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 also helped McDormand understand Minnesota nice and the practice of head-nodding to show agreement.[22] The strong accent of Jerry and Marge is less common in the Twin Cities, where over 60% of the state's population lives. Speakers from Minneapolis and St. Paul are more 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. In general, the accent was largely exaggerated.


Critical response[edit]

Fargo holds a 94% approval rating and 8.7/10 average on Rotten Tomatoes based on 87 reviews. The site's critical consensus reads, "Violent, quirky, and darkly funny, Fargo delivers an original crime story and a wonderful performance by McDormand".[23] The film also holds a score of 85 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 24 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".[24]

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both named Fargo the best film of 1996. It was also Ebert's fourth favorite of the 1990s.[25] In his original review, Ebert called it "one of the best films I've ever seen" and said that "films like Fargo are why I love the movies".[26]

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

Film festivals[edit]

Fargo was screened at many film festivals. It was in the main competition at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director prize). Other festival screenings included the Pusan International Film Festival, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the Naples Film Festival. On March 1, 2006, for the film's tenth anniversary, the first annual Fargo Film Festival screened Fargo by projecting the film onto the side of the Radisson Hotel (the city's tallest building) in downtown Fargo. The city repeated the event on September 29, 2011.

Awards and honors[edit]




Fargo/Barton Fink: Music by Carter Burwell
Fargo soundtrack album.jpg
Soundtrack album by Carter Burwell
Released May 28, 1996
Genre Film score
Length 43:15
Label TVT
Coen Brothers film soundtracks chronology
The Hudsucker Proxy
The Big Lebowski

As with all the Coen Brothers' films, except O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the score to Fargo is by Carter Burwell.[30]

The main musical motif is based on a Norwegian folk song[31] called "The Lost Sheep", or natively "Den bortkomne sauen".

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 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.[30]

Track listing[edit]

No. Title Length
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
8. "Rubbernecking"   2:04
9. "Dance of the Sierra"   1:23
10. "The Mallard"   0:58
11. "Delivery"   4:46
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

Home video releases[edit]

  • Fargo has been released in several formats: VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes download.[32] 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".[33]
  • MGM Home Entertainment released Fargo on DVD on July 8, 1997 in a bare-bones edition.[34] A "Special Edition" DVD was released on September 30, 2003. The released 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 Jerry Lundegaard's arrest "Outside of Bismarck, North Dakota" has been inserted digitally and moved from the bottom of the screen to the top.[34] 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.[35] On April 1, 2014, in commemoration for the 90th anniversary of MGM, the film was remastered in 4K and reissued again on Blu-ray.[35]

Television series[edit]

In 1997, a pilot was filmed for a 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 finally aired in 2003 during Trio's Brilliant But Cancelled series of failed TV shows.[36]

A TV series inspired by the film, with the Coens as executive producers,[37] debuted on FX in April 2014.[38] The first season received high acclaim from critics and audiences.[38][39][40] Existing in the same fictional universe as the film with each season featuring a different story, cast, and era. The episode "Eating the Blame" reintroduces the buried ransom money for a minor three-episode subplot.[41][42]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Fargo". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved August 2, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b "Fargo (1995)". British Film Institute. Retrieved August 5, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b "Fargo (1996)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 2, 2015. 
  4. ^ a b "Festival de Cannes: Fargo". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-09-16. 
  5. ^ "'Fargo,' 'Blazing Saddles' Added to National Film Registry". ABC News. 
  6. ^ Goldberg, Lesley (January 14, 2014). "FX's 'Fargo' Cast, EPs on Film Comparisons, Anthology Format, Courting Billy Bob Thornton". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 23, 2014. 
  7. ^ Fargo from the Urban Legends Reference Pages
  8. ^ Heitmueller, Karl (2005-04-12). "Rewind: What Part Of 'Based On' Don't You Understand?". MTV.com. Retrieved 2012-09-25. 
  9. ^ O'Rourke, Mike (1997-02-11). "Reaction to 'Fargo' nomination". Brainerd Dispatch. Archived from the original on Dec 31, 2002. 
  10. ^ Smetanka, Mary Jane (2008-08-08). "We're ready for our close-up, Mr. Coen(s)". Minneapolis Star Tribune. Retrieved 2008-09-05. 
  11. ^ Roberts, Sam (2015-09-05). "T. Eugene Thompson Dies at 88; Crime Stunned St. Paul". New York Times. Retrieved 2015-09-07. 
  12. ^ Gado, Mark (1986-11-18). "All about the Woodchipper Murder Case". Crimelibrary.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  13. ^ Dwyer, M. "Lepage Leaps Into the Limelight". The Irish Times (May 31, 1996), p. 11.
  14. ^ Ebert, R. "'Sleepers' Casts Faith to Wind." Chicago Sun-Times (October 18, 1996), p. 23.
  15. ^ "Stock photo with location". Cgstock.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  16. ^ "At last, a real home". Ccht.org. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  17. ^ a b c d Fargo at movie-locations.com, retrieved September 29, 2016.
  18. ^ J. Pinkley (April 28, 2003). "Kitchen of Kemp, Melroe home". startribune.com. Archived from the original on 2007-10-22. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  19. ^ Garner, J. "Fargo Reaffirms Talents of Coen Brothers". Asheville Citizen-Times (7 April 1996), p. B1.
  20. ^ McMacken, Robin (May 9, 2004). "North Dakota: Where the accent is on friendship". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  21. ^ Laura Randall (March 26, 2004). "She Accentuates Film Performances". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  22. ^ Chris Hewitt (October 19, 2005). "Forget `Fargo' – actors put accent on Minnesota realism". Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  23. ^ Fargo at Rotten Tomatoes
  24. ^ Fargo at Metacritic
  25. ^ "Memo to the Academy". Siskel & Ebert. Aired on January 18, 1997.
  26. ^ Ebert, Roger (March 8, 1996). "Fargo". Chicago Sun-Times. Sun-Times Media Group. Retrieved March 31, 2010. 
  27. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies" (PDF). American Film Institute. 1998. Retrieved August 21, 2016. 
  28. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. 2000. Retrieved August 21, 2016. 
  29. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. 2003. Retrieved August 21, 2016. 
  30. ^ a b "Soundtrack Details: Fargo". SoundtrackCollector.com. Retrieved 2007-10-11. 
  31. ^ Braxton, Jonathan. "Fargo/Barton Fink". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-10-11. 
  32. ^ "Fargo". iTunes. 
  33. ^ Burr, Ty (May 2, 1999). "SUMMER FILMS: SYNERGY; A Few Words in Defense of Swag". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-12-09. 
  34. ^ a b "Fargo". IMDb. 
  35. ^ a b "Fargo". Blu-ray.com. 
  36. ^ "Television: Reruns; Edie Falco in 'Fargo,' and Other Gems You Never Saw". The New York Times. 31 August 2003. Retrieved 5 December 2011. 
  37. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (2012-09-21). "FX Teams With Joel & Ethan Coen And Noah Hawley For Series Adaptation Of 'Fargo'". Deadline.com. Retrieved 2012-09-25. 
  38. ^ a b "FX Sets Premiere Date For 'Fargo,'" from Variety, 1/14/2014
  39. ^ "Billy Bob Thornton to star in "Fargo" TV series". CBS News. August 2, 2013. Retrieved August 3, 2013. 
  40. ^ "Metacritic: Fargo Season 1". Metacritic. July 14, 2013. Retrieved July 14, 2013. 
  41. ^ Ray, Amber (May 7, 2014). "'Fargo' episode 4: The Easter egg that connects the series to the film". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved June 20, 2014. 
  42. ^ Nguyen, Hanh (May 6, 2014). "Fargo Boss Breaks Down That (Very Familiar) Money Shot". TV Guide. Retrieved June 20, 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]