Fargo (film)

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. Frances McDormand stars as 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).

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 Best Actress Oscar, and the Coens won in the Best Original Screenplay category.

The film was selected in 2006 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry 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] The American Film Institute named it one of the 100 greatest American movies of all time in 1998. A Coen-produced FX television series inspired by Fargo was also critically and commercially successful.[5]


It is the winter of 1987, and Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), the sales manager at a Minneapolis Oldsmobile dealership, is desperate for money. He floated a $320,000 GMAC loan to cover up his embezzlements from dealership bank accounts, collateralizing it with nonexistent dealership vehicles, and GMAC is asking questions. Dealership mechanic and paroled ex-convict Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) refers him to an old partner in crime, Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare). Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota, towing a new car from his dealership's lot, and 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), in return for the dealership car and half of the $80,000 ransom.

Back in Minneapolis, Jerry pitches Gustafson a lucrative real estate deal. Gustafson checks with his accountant, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), and agrees to front $750,000. Jerry considers calling off the kidnapping, but it is already in motion. Then, he learns that Gustafson and Grossman plan to make the deal themselves, leaving Jerry a paltry finder's fee. At Jerry's home, Carl and Gaear carry out an inept and violent kidnapping. As they transport Jean to their remote cabin hideout on Moose Lake, a state trooper pulls them over outside Brainerd for driving without the required temporary tags over the dealership plates. When the trooper notices a whimpering, blanket-covered body in the back seat, Gaear kills him. Two passing motorists spot Carl disposing of the body; Gaear chases them down and shoots them as well.

The following morning, Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand), who is seven months pregnant, initiates a homicide investigation. She learns that the trooper was murdered while ticketing a car with dealership plates; and that the previous night, two men driving a dealership vehicle checked into the local Blue Ox Motel with two call girls, and placed a call to Proudfoot. After questioning the prostitutes (who are of little help), she drives to Gustafson's dealership, where Proudfoot feigns ignorance and Jerry insists none of his cars are missing from the lot. 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 makes an awkward attempt to seduce her.

Jerry informs Gustafson and Grossman 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 $80,000; and GMAC gives Jerry 24 hours to prove the existence of the nonexistent collateral or face legal consequences.

Carl takes another call girl to see José Feliciano at the Carlton Celebrity Room; afterwards, he is attacked and beaten by a furious Proudfoot for involving him in the murder investigation with his late-night phone call. Carl—bruised, humiliated, and frightened—calls Jerry and orders him to deliver the ransom within 30 minutes. Gustafson insists on making the money drop himself. At the pre-arranged drop point in a Minneapolis parking garage, he tells Carl he will not hand over the money without seeing Jean. An enraged Carl shoots Gustafson, who, before dying, manages to return fire, striking Carl in the jaw. After fleeing the scene, Carl is astounded to discover that Gustafson's briefcase contains far more than the anticipated $80,000. He removes that amount to split with Gaear, then buries the briefcase, intending to return for it later and keep the rest of the money for himself. At the cabin, Gaear—oblivious to Carl's serious gunshot wound—informs Carl that he shot Jean when she "wouldn't stop screaming". Carl says they must part ways and flee the state separately; but after a heated argument over possession of the dealership car, Gaear kills Carl with an axe.

During a phone conversation with a mutual friend, Marge learns that Yanagita's dead wife was never his wife, nor is she dead. Yanagita has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals since high school, and has been stalking the woman for years. Reflecting on Yanagita's convincing lies, Marge returns to Gustafson's dealership. Jerry continues to insist that he is not missing any cars, but offers to inventory the lot anyway. Marge waits—and then, through a window, sees Jerry driving away from the dealership, and calls the State Police. The next morning Marge drives to Moose Lake, on a tip from a local bar owner who reported a "funny-looking guy" bragging about killing someone. Outside a cabin she spots the dealership car she is seeking; nearby, Gaear is feeding Carl's dismembered 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.

Marge's husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch), whose mallard painting has been selected for a 3-cent postage stamp, complains that his friend's painting will be on the first class (29-cent) stamp. Marge reassures him that lots of people use 3-cent stamps; the two happily anticipate the birth of their child in two months.



Factual vs. fictional

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.[6]

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."[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 infamous 1986 murder of Helle Crafts from Connecticut at the hands of her husband, Richard, who disposed of her body through a wood chipper.[11]


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[12]). 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).[13]

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.[14] It was later demolished, along with most other buildings on that block of Central Avenue, and replaced by low-income housing.[15] 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.[16]

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.[16] 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,[17] 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.[16]

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.[16] 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.[18]


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.[19] Dialect coach Liz Himelstein maintained that "the accent was another character". She coached the cast using audio tapes and field trips.[20] 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.[21] 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. 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.[19]


Critical response

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".[22] The film scores 85 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 24 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".[23]

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert each named Fargo the best film of 1996.[24] 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.[25]

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.

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.[26]

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.[27]

Awards and honors




Fargo/Barton Fink: Music by Carter Burwell
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.[31]

The main musical motif is based on a Norwegian folk song[32] 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.[31]

Track listing

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

Television series

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.[37]

A TV series inspired by the film, with the Coens as executive producers,[38] debuted on FX in April 2014.[39] The first season received high acclaim from critics and audiences.[39][40][41] 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.[42][43]

See also


  1. "Fargo". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved August 2, 2015.
  2. 1 2 "Fargo (1995)". British Film Institute. Retrieved August 5, 2015.
  3. 1 2 "Fargo (1996)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 2, 2015.
  4. "'Fargo,' 'Blazing Saddles' Added to National Film Registry". ABC News.
  5. 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.
  6. Fargo from the Urban Legends Reference Pages
  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. Roberts, Sam (2015-09-05). "T. Eugene Thompson Dies at 88; Crime Stunned St. Paul". New York Times. Retrieved 2015-09-07.
  11. Gado, Mark (1986-11-18). "All about the Woodchipper Murder Case". Crimelibrary.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28.
  12. Dwyer, M. "Lepage Leaps Into the Limelight". The Irish Times (May 31, 1996), p. 11.
  13. Ebert, R. "'Sleepers' Casts Faith to Wind." Chicago Sun-Times (October 18, 1996), p. 23.
  14. "Stock photo with location". Cgstock.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28.
  15. "At last, a real home". Ccht.org. Retrieved 2010-02-28.
  16. 1 2 3 4 Fargo at movie-locations.com, retrieved September 29, 2016.
  17. J. Pinkley (April 28, 2003). "Kitchen of Kemp, Melroe home". startribune.com. Archived from the original on 2007-10-22. Retrieved 2011-02-28.
  18. Garner, J. "Fargo Reaffirms Talents of Coen Brothers". Asheville Citizen-Times (7 April 1996), p. B1.
  19. 1 2 McMacken, Robin (May 9, 2004). "North Dakota: Where the accent is on friendship". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2008-02-22.
  20. Laura Randall (March 26, 2004). "She Accentuates Film Performances". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2008-02-22.
  21. Chris Hewitt (October 19, 2005). "Forget `Fargo' – actors put accent on Minnesota realism". Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved 2008-02-22.
  22. Fargo at Rotten Tomatoes
  23. Fargo at Metacritic
  24. "Memo to the Academy". Siskel & Ebert. Aired on January 18, 1997.
  25. Ebert, Roger (March 8, 1996). "Fargo". Chicago Sun-Times. Sun-Times Media Group. Retrieved March 31, 2010.
  26. 1 2 "Festival de Cannes: Fargo". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved September 16, 2009.
  27. Film festival lights up the night by showing film on building. inforum.com (February 6, 2006), retrieved October 13, 2016.
  28. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies" (PDF). American Film Institute. 1998. Retrieved August 21, 2016.
  29. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. 2000. Retrieved August 21, 2016.
  30. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. 2003. Retrieved August 21, 2016.
  31. 1 2 "Soundtrack Details: Fargo". SoundtrackCollector.com. Retrieved 2007-10-11.
  32. Braxton, Jonathan. "Fargo/Barton Fink". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-10-11.
  33. "Fargo". iTunes.
  34. Burr, Ty (May 2, 1999). "SUMMER FILMS: SYNERGY; A Few Words in Defense of Swag". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-12-09.
  35. 1 2 "Fargo". IMDb.
  36. 1 2 "Fargo". Blu-ray.com.
  37. "Television: Reruns; Edie Falco in 'Fargo,' and Other Gems You Never Saw". The New York Times. 31 August 2003. Retrieved 5 December 2011.
  38. 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.
  39. 1 2 "FX Sets Premiere Date For 'Fargo,'" from Variety, 1/14/2014
  40. "Billy Bob Thornton to star in "Fargo" TV series". CBS News. August 2, 2013. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
  41. "Metacritic: Fargo Season 1". Metacritic. July 14, 2013. Retrieved July 14, 2013.
  42. Ray, Amber (May 7, 2014). "'Fargo' episode 4: The Easter egg that connects the series to the film". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved June 20, 2014.
  43. Nguyen, Hanh (May 6, 2014). "Fargo Boss Breaks Down That (Very Familiar) Money Shot". TV Guide. Retrieved June 20, 2014.

Further reading

External links

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