Fargo (film)

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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
Editing by Roderick Jaynes
Studio PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Working Title Films
Distributed by Gramercy Pictures
Release dates
  • March 8, 1996 (1996-03-08)
Running time 98 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $7 million
Box office $60,611,975

Fargo is a 1996 American crime-black comedy film written, produced, edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It stars Frances McDormand as a pregnant Minnesota police chief who investigates a series of local homicides, and William H. Macy as a struggling car salesman who hires two criminals to kidnap his wife. The film also features Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, and Harve Presnell.

The film earned seven Academy Award nominations, winning two for Best Original Screenplay for the Coens and Best Actress in a Leading Role for McDormand.1 It also won the BAFTA Award and the Award for Best Director for Joel Coen at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.2

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 only five films to be preserved in its first year of eligibility.3


In the winter of 1987, Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), is desperate for money. Jerry is introduced to criminals Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) by American Indian ex-convict Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis), a mechanic at the dealership where Jerry works. Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota, and hires the two men to kidnap his wife, Jean, in exchange for a new 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and half of the $80,000 ransom. However, Jerry intends to tell his wealthy father-in-law and boss, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), that the ransom demand is $1,000,000 and keep most of the money for himself.

Jerry has been trying to raise money by promoting a real estate deal to Wade. Jerry tries to call off the kidnapping after he thinks that Wade has agreed to the investment, but he is too late. As it turns out, Wade intends to buy the property himself and give Jerry only a finder's fee. Meanwhile, Carl and Gaear travel to Minneapolis and successfully kidnap Jean, but on their way through Brainerd, Minnesota, a state trooper stops them due to their vehicle not yet having license plates nor displaying the required new vehicle temporary tags. When Carl's attempt to bribe the trooper fails and makes the trooper suspicious, Gaear kills the trooper. As Carl is moving the trooper's body off the road, he is seen by a couple passing by in their car. Gaear chases after the couple, who lose control of their car and swerve off the road, allowing Gaear to kill them.

The following morning, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a local police chief, who is seven months pregnant, begins to investigate the homicides. She deduces the chain of events and follows the leads that arise, including interviewing two prostitutes who had serviced the criminals at a truck stop two nights before. After being informed that the criminals telephoned Shep Proudfoot from the truck stop, she drives to Minneapolis but acquires no information in interviews with Shep and Jerry. That evening, Marge has dinner with her old classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), who unsuccessfully tries to seduce her and tells her that he has been lonely ever since wife, Linda Cooksey, an old friend of Marge's, had died from leukemia.

Jerry contacts Wade and Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Wade's accountant, claiming that the kidnappers insist on dealing only with Jerry. Wade and Stan accept this arrangement at first, but Wade later changes his mind. Meanwhile, after Shep is questioned by Marge as part of the investigation, Shep finds and beats Carl. An angry Carl phones Jerry and demands that Jerry meet him at a parking garage with the ransom money. Wade, who was eavesdropping on their conversation, decides to drop off the money himself. When Wade arrives, he refuses to hand over to Carl the briefcase full of the ransom money until his daughter is returned. Angered by Wade's demands and unexpected appearance, Carl kills Wade, but not before Wade is able to shoot Carl across the face. Jerry arrives at the scene just as Carl leaves with the money, and he puts Wade's body in his trunk. The next day, Carl discovers that the bag contains $1,000,000. He removes $80,000 to split with Gaear and buries the rest by the side of the highway. Carl returns to the hideout and discovers that Gaear has killed Jean. The two have a dispute over the car, which results in Gaear murdering Carl with an ax.

Before leaving Minneapolis, Marge learns from Detective Sibert that Mike had lied to her about his marriage and about Linda's death. She finds out that Mike has psychiatric problems and was actually stalking Linda. This revelation causes Marge to, once again, question Jerry, whom she now believes also lied to her about the missing car and its possible connection to the Brainerd homicides. Jerry becomes nervously uncooperative when Marge asks to speak to Wade. Jerry storms out of his office and angrily claims that he is going to go and check the lot for the missing car. Instead, he flees the dealership, which prompts Marge to contact the state police. After following up on a tip from a local bartender, who was suspicious over a drunken Carl's rantings a few days prior, Marge drives to Moose Lake and finds the stolen car. She catches Gaear feeding the last of Carl's body into a wood chipper. Gaear attempts to run away across the frozen lake, but is unsuccessful after Marge shoots him in the leg. Later, Jerry's location is traced to a motel outside of Bismarck, North Dakota, where he is subdued and arrested before he is able to escape through a rear window.

That night, Marge and her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), sit in bed together discussing Norm's mallard artwork, which has been selected as the design for a postage stamp. Norm is disappointed that it is not the most popular denomination of stamp, but Marge is very proud of his accomplishment.



Factual basis

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 claim 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."4

The Coens claim the actual murders took place, but not in Minnesota.5 The main reason for the film's setting is the Coens were born and raised in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis.6

On Fargo's special edition DVD's trivia track, 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.7

The end credits bear the standard "all persons fictitious" disclaimer for a work of fiction.8


Due to the region's unseasonably mild winter of February and March 1995, the crew was forced to move locations from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to Pembina County, North Dakota to find more suitably snow-covered landscapes for the film's winter setting. In some scenes, artificial snow had to be created as pools and streams of meltwater are visible.citation needed Despite the film's title, no scenes were filmed in or near Fargo, North Dakota.

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.9 It has since been razed and is now Clare Housing for people with HIV.10
  • The Pillsbury Ave., Minneapolis home of Doug Melroe and Denny Kemp includes the kitchen of the Lundegaards' house.11
  • 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 is currently the 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 Edina, Minnesota Police Station was used for interior shots of the Brainerd Police Station.12
  • The Lakeside Club, where Marge interviews the hookers, is in Mahtomedi, Minnesota.
  • Carl steals a license plate from the parking lot of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.
  • Chanhassen Dinner Theatres 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.).
  • The Paul Bunyan statue was constructed solely for the film four miles west of Bathgate, North Dakota along Pembina County Highway 1.12
  • Mr. Mohra's home was filmed on the corner of 3rd Street and Bryan Avenue in Hallock, Minnesota.12
  • The Hitching Post Motel, in Forest Lake, Minnesota, 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.13 According to the film's dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, "the accent was another character." She coached the cast using audio tapes and field trips.14 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.15 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 such as Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo. In general, the accent was largely exaggerated. Many North Dakotans and Minnesotans were offended or surprised by the inaccurate depiction the film made in terms of the accent.


Critical response

Fargo was met with widespread critical acclaim, currently holding a 94% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on reviews from 67 critics.1617

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both named Fargo the best film of 1996. It was also Ebert's fourth favorite of the 1990s.18 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".19

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

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 annual Fargo Film Festival showed Fargo by projecting the film on 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



Other honors

American Film Institute


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.25

The main musical motif is based on a Norwegian folk song26 called "The Lost Sheep", or natively "Den bortkomne sauen".

Other songs in the film include "Big City" by Merle Haggard, heard in the Fargo bar where Jerry meets with kidnappers Carl and Gaear, and "Let's Find Each Other Tonight" a live nightclub performance by José Feliciano that is viewed by Showalter 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. None of these songs appear on the soundtrack album.

The soundtrack was released in 1996 on TVT Records, combined with selections from the score to Barton Fink.25

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
  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

  • The film has been released in several formats: VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes download. [1]
  • The 1996 special edition VHS release included a snow globe that depicted the woodchipper scene which, when shaken, stirred up both snow and "blood".27
  • The film was first released on DVD on July 8, 1997 in a bare-bones edition and widescreen transfer.28 A "Special Edition" DVD was released on September 30, 2003. 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 title 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.28
  • A Blu-ray version was released on May 12, 2009. [2] On April 1, 2014, it was remastered on Blu-Ray in 4K. [3]

Television spin-offs

In 1997, a pilot was filmed for a television series based on the film. Set in Brainerd, it starred Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson, and was directed by Kathy Bates; the Coen brothers were not involved. The episode was shown during Trio's 2003 Brilliant But Cancelled series of failed TV shows.29

In 2012, it was announced that FX is developing a new TV series based on the film with the Coens as executive producers.30 It was later announced that the adaptation would be a 10-episode limited series.31 On August 2, 2013, it was announced that Billy Bob Thornton has signed on to star in the series and on September 27, 2013 it was announced that Martin Freeman has also signed on to star.32 The series premiered on April 15, 2014 to positive reviews.33


  1. ^ "Oscars.org". Awardsdatabase.oscars.org. 2010-01-29. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  2. ^ a b "Festival de Cannes: Fargo". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-09-16. 
  3. ^ ["'Fargo,' Blazing Saddles' added to National Film Registry - ABC News" http://www.abcnews.go.com > ABC News]
  4. ^ Heitmueller, Karl (2005-04-12). "Rewind: What Part Of 'Based On' Don't You Understand? - Music, Celebrity, Artist News". MTV.com. Retrieved 2012-09-25. 
  5. ^ O'Rourke, Mike (1997-02-11). "Reaction to 'Fargo' nomination". Brainerd Dispatch. 
  6. ^ Smetanka, Mary Jane (2008-08-08). "We're ready for our close-up, Mr. Coen(s)". Minneapolis Star Tribune. Retrieved 2008-09-05. 
  7. ^ Gado, Mark (1986-11-18). "All about the Woodchipper Murder Case". Crimelibrary.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  8. ^ Fargo from the Urban Legends Reference Pages
  9. ^ "(stock photo with location)". Cgstock.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  10. ^ "At last, a real home". Ccht.org. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  11. ^ J. Pinkley (April 28, 2003). "Kitchen of Kemp, Melroe home". startribune.com. Archived from the original on 2007-10-22. Retrieved 2011-02-28. 
  12. ^ a b c IMDB Fargo (1996) – Filming locations.
  13. ^ McMacken, Robin (May 9, 2004). "North Dakota: Where the accent is on friendship". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  14. ^ Laura Randall (March 26, 2004). "She Accentuates Film Performances". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  15. ^ Chris Hewitt (October 19, 2005). "Forget `Fargo' – actors put accent on Minnesota realism". Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  16. ^ "Fargo Movie Reviews, Pictures – Rotten Tomatoes". Uk.rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  17. ^ "Fargo (1996): Reviews". Metacritic.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  18. ^ "Memo to the Academy". Siskel & Ebert. Aired on January 18, 1997.
  19. ^ Ebert, Roger (March 8, 1996). "Fargo". Chicago Sun-Times (Sun-Times Media Group). Retrieved March 31, 2010. 
  20. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees
  21. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains Nominees
  22. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees
  23. ^ AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees
  24. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Ballot
  25. ^ a b "Soundtrack Details: Fargo". SoundtrackCollector.com. Retrieved 2007-10-11. 
  26. ^ Braxton, Jonathan. "Fargo/Barton Fink". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-10-11. 
  27. ^ Ty burr (May 2, 1999). "SUMMER FILMS: SYNERGY; A Few Words in Defense of Swag". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-12-09. 
  28. ^ a b IMDB Fargo DVD Information
  29. ^ "Television: Reruns; Edie Falco in 'Fargo,' and Other Gems You Never Saw". New York Times. 31 August 2003. Retrieved 5 December 2011. 
  30. ^ 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. 
  31. ^ 'Fargo' TV Series Gets 10 Episodes On FX
  32. ^ "Billy Bob Thornton to star in "Fargo" TV series". cbsnews.com. August 2, 2013. Retrieved August 3, 2013. 
  33. ^ "FX Sets Premiere Date For 'Fargo,'" from Variety, 1/14/2014

Further reading

External links

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