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
Starring Frances McDormand
William H. Macy
Steve Buscemi
Harve Presnell
Peter Stormare
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 neo-noir black comedy crime thriller 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 deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and inducted into the United States National Film Registry for preservation, 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 critically acclaimed FX television series created and written by Noah Hawley, with the Coen brothers acting as executive producers.[6]


In 1987, Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is desperate for money. Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis), an ex-convict, gives him a name; he travels to Fargo, North Dakota, where he hires Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd), and ransom her for $80,000, knowing his wealthy father-in-law and boss, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay. In return, Lundegaard will give Showalter and Grimsrud a new 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, and half of the ransom money.

Lundegaard gets phone calls from GMAC about an unpaid loan for sold vehicles from the dealership. These are non-existent, as he is scamming GMAC. He also tries to convince Gustafson to lend him $750,000 for a real estate deal. When Gustafson shows interest, Lundegaard tries to cancel the kidnapping, but too late: Showalter and Grimsrud are driving to Minneapolis. Lundegaard then discovers Gustafson will only give him a small finder's fee.

Showalter and Grimsrud arrive in Minneapolis and kidnap Lundegaard's wife. However, on the way to their cabin hideout, they are stopped by a state trooper outside Brainerd, Minnesota. Grimsrud shoots and kills the trooper, and then shoots and kills a couple who saw the incident. The next morning, local police chief, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who is seven months pregnant, investigates the homicides. After being informed that the criminals telephoned Proudfoot from the truck stop, she drives to Minneapolis. While visiting Minneapolis, Marge reconnects with an old classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), who unsuccessfully tries to seduce her during dinner.

Lundegaard contacts Gustafson and his accountant Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), who at first let only Lundegaard speak to the "kidnappers". Later Gustafson decides to deal with them himself. Showalter then tells Lundegaard he must give the criminals the entire $80,000 ransom.

Showalter phones Lundegaard, demanding he make the drop that night at a parking garage. However, Gustafson drives off with the ransom in his briefcase. At the drop, he refuses to hand it over until his daughter is returned. Showalter kills Gustafson, but not before being shot in the face. Lundegaard arrives at the shooting scene and puts the body in his trunk. The next day, Showalter discovers that the briefcase contains a million dollars (the amount that Lundegaard had told Gustafson was demanded). Showalter removes $80,000 to split with Grimsrud, and buries the rest in the snow alongside the highway. On returning to the hideout, Showalter discovers that Grimsrud has killed Lundegaard's wife. The two criminals argue over the car, and Grimsrud kills Showalter.

Marge Gunderson questions Lundegaard again, and asks to speak to Gustafson. Lundegaard flees the dealership, and Marge contacts the state police. Following up on a tip, Marge drives to Moose Lake and spots the stolen car. She finds Grimsrud feeding the last of Showalter's body into a wood chipper. He tries to escape, but Marge shoots him in the leg and arrests him. Driving back, a saddened Marge asks Grimsrud why he committed the crimes, telling him, "there's more to life than a little money, you know?" Later, Lundegaard's location is traced to a motel outside Bismarck, North Dakota, where he is subdued and arrested while attempting to escape through a bathroom window.

That night, Marge Gunderson and her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), sit in bed together discussing Norm's mallard painting, which has been selected as the design for a US postage stamp. Norm is disappointed that it will appear only on the 3¢ stamp, but Marge is very proud of his achievement. The two hold each other close, and mention that their child will be born in two months' time.



Factual basis[edit]

Fargo 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.

Although the film plot is completely fictional, the Coen brothers claimed that many of the events that take place in the movie were actually based on true events from other cases that they threw together to make one story. Joel Coen noted:

We weren't interested in that kind of fidelity. 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 Coens claim the actual murders took place, but not in Minnesota.[8] The main reason for the film's setting is the Coens were born and raised in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis.[9]

On the trivia track of the film's special edition DVD, it is revealed that the main case that inspired the movie is 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.[10] The end credits bear the standard "all persons fictitious" disclaimer for a work of fiction.[11]

Some Minnesotans suspected that the case was based in part on that of T. Eugene Thompson, who in 1963 hired a hit man to murder his wife in order to collect on her life insurance. However, Joel Coen stated in an interview at the time of Thompson's death in 2015 that the film's story is completely made up.[12]


Principal photography on Fargo began on January 25, 1995 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. However, due to the region's unusually mild winter that year, the crew moved locations on March 9 to Hallock, Minnesota to find more suitably snow-covered landscapes for the film's winter setting. A second unit under the direction of Roger Deakins filmed near Bathgate, North Dakota where the film's Paul Bunyan statue was constructed.[13] Despite the film's title, no scenes were filmed in or near Fargo, North Dakota.

Filming locations used during production include:

  • King of Clubs, the bar shown at the beginning of the film where Lundegaard met the kidnappers, was located in Northeast Minneapolis on Central Avenue.[14] It has since been razed and is now Clare Housing for people with HIV.[15]
  • The Pillsbury Ave., Minneapolis home of Doug Melroe and Denny Kemp includes the kitchen of the Lundegaards' house.[16]
  • Wally McCarthy Oldsmobile was used for Gustafson Automotive and was located in the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield, off of Interstate 494 and Penn Avenue. The dealership has since relocated to Roseville and the site is currently Best Buy's corporate headquarters.
  • Stockman's Truck Stop in South St. Paul was used as the Blue Ox Motel.
  • Ember's was a restaurant located on the frontage road (S. Wayzata Blvd.) of Interstate 394 in St. Louis Park. The location is now out of business and the building has been razed; it is now the location of DaVita Westwood Hills Dialysis.
  • The kidnappers' hideout cabin was located on Square Lake in May, Minnesota. In 2002, it was sold and relocated to Barnes, Wisconsin.
  • The former Edina Police Station was used for interior shots of the Brainerd Police Station.[13]
  • The Lakeside Club, where Marge interviews the hookers, is in Mahtomedi.
  • Carl steals a license plate from the parking lot of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.
  • Carlton Celebrity Room in Bloomington was used for the José Feliciano concert.
  • The Minneapolis Club Parking Ramp (located on S. 8th St. and 3rd Ave S.) was used for the scene wherein Wade delivers the money to Carl. The end of the scene, where Carl exits the parking garage, was actually shot at a different garage down the street – the Centre Village Parking Ramp (located at S. 8th St. and 5th Ave S.).
  • Mr. Mohra's home was filmed on the corner of 3rd Street and Bryan Avenue in Hallock, Minnesota. Hwy 175 west of Hallock served as the location of the homicide crime scene.[13]
  • The Hitching Post Motel, in Forest Lake, was used as the Bismarck motel when Jerry is arrested.


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.[17] According to the film's dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, "the accent was another character." She coached the cast using audio tapes and field trips.[18] 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.[19] 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 was met with widespread critical acclaim, currently holding a 94% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on reviews from 84 critics.[20][21]

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both named Fargo the best film of 1996. It was also Ebert's fourth favorite of the 1990s.[22] 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".[23]

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. 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".

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]



Other honors[edit]

American Film Institute


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.[29]

The main musical motif is based on a Norwegian folk song[30] 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. 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.[29]

Track listing[edit]

  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.[31] 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".[32]
  • MGM Home Entertainment released Fargo on DVD on July 8, 1997 in a bare-bones edition.[33] 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.[33] 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.[34] On April 1, 2014, in commemoration for the 90th anniversary of MGM, the film was remastered in 4K and reissued again on Blu-ray.[34]

Television spin-offs[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.[35]

A TV series inspired by the film, with the Coens as executive producers,[36] debuted on FX in April 2014.[37] The series stars Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman and its first season received high acclaim from critics and audiences.[37][38][39] Existing in the same fictional universe as the film, the series is set mainly in Bemidji, Minnesota, nineteen years after the film's events, and has a different cast of characters. The episode "Eating the Blame" reintroduces the buried ransom money for a minor three-episode subplot.[40][41]

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. ^ Heitmueller, Karl (2005-04-12). "Rewind: What Part Of 'Based On' Don't You Understand?". MTV.com. Retrieved 2012-09-25. 
  8. ^ O'Rourke, Mike (1997-02-11). "Reaction to 'Fargo' nomination". Brainerd Dispatch. Archived from the original on Dec 31, 2002. 
  9. ^ Smetanka, Mary Jane (2008-08-08). "We're ready for our close-up, Mr. Coen(s)". Minneapolis Star Tribune. Retrieved 2008-09-05. 
  10. ^ Gado, Mark (1986-11-18). "All about the Woodchipper Murder Case". Crimelibrary.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  11. ^ Fargo from the Urban Legends Reference Pages
  12. ^ Roberts, Sam (2015-09-05). "T. Eugene Thompson Dies at 88; Crime Stunned St. Paul". New York Times. Retrieved 2015-09-07. 
  13. ^ a b c IMDB Fargo (1996) – Filming locations.
  14. ^ "(stock photo with location)". Cgstock.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  15. ^ "At last, a real home". Ccht.org. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  16. ^ J. Pinkley (April 28, 2003). "Kitchen of Kemp, Melroe home". startribune.com. Archived from the original on 2007-10-22. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  17. ^ McMacken, Robin (May 9, 2004). "North Dakota: Where the accent is on friendship". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  18. ^ Laura Randall (March 26, 2004). "She Accentuates Film Performances". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  19. ^ Chris Hewitt (October 19, 2005). "Forget `Fargo' – actors put accent on Minnesota realism". Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  20. ^ "Fargo Movie Reviews, Pictures – Rotten Tomatoes". Uk.rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  21. ^ "Fargo (1996): Reviews". Metacritic.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  22. ^ "Memo to the Academy". Siskel & Ebert. Aired on January 18, 1997.
  23. ^ Ebert, Roger (March 8, 1996). "Fargo". Chicago Sun-Times (Sun-Times Media Group). Retrieved March 31, 2010. 
  24. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees
  25. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees
  26. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees
  27. ^ AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees
  28. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Ballot
  29. ^ a b "Soundtrack Details: Fargo". SoundtrackCollector.com. Retrieved 2007-10-11. 
  30. ^ Braxton, Jonathan. "Fargo/Barton Fink". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-10-11. 
  31. ^ https://itunes.apple.com/au/movie/fargo-1996/id341289724
  32. ^ Ty burr (May 2, 1999). "SUMMER FILMS: SYNERGY; A Few Words in Defense of Swag". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-12-09. 
  33. ^ a b IMDB Fargo DVD Information
  34. ^ a b http://www.blu-ray.com/movies/Fargo-Blu-ray/4352/
  35. ^ "Television: Reruns; Edie Falco in 'Fargo,' and Other Gems You Never Saw". The New York Times. 31 August 2003. Retrieved 5 December 2011. 
  36. ^ 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. 
  37. ^ a b "FX Sets Premiere Date For 'Fargo,'" from Variety, 1/14/2014
  38. ^ "Billy Bob Thornton to star in "Fargo" TV series". CBS News. August 2, 2013. Retrieved August 3, 2013. 
  39. ^ "Metacritic: Fargo Season 1". Metacritic. July 14, 2013. Retrieved July 14, 2013. 
  40. ^ Ray, Amber (May 7, 2014). "'Fargo' episode 4: The Easter egg that connects the series to the film". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved June 20, 2014. 
  41. ^ 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]