Film Screening: “Fargo”

Jerry Lundegaard’s inept crime falls apart due to his and his henchmen’s bungling and the persistent police work of the quite pregnant Marge Gunderson. IMDB

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Director: Joel Coen
WritersEthan CoenJoel Coen
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Film Editing by: Ethan CoenJoel Coen
Produced byTim BevanJohn CameronEthan CoenJoel CoenEric Fellner
Original Music by Carter Burwell

Fargo is a 1996 American crime film produced, directed and written by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. It stars Frances McDormand as a pregnant police chief who investigates a series of homicides and William H. Macy as a car salesman who hires two criminals to kidnap his wife. Steve Buscemi andPeter Stormare play the criminals and Harve Presnell plays the salesman’s father-in-law.

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. It also won the BAFTA Award and the Award for Best Director for Joel Coen at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.

In 2006 it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and inducted into the United States National Film Registry.


In the winter of 1987, Minneapolis automobile salesman Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) is in financial trouble. Jerry is introduced to criminals Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare) by Native American ex-convict Shep Proudfoot (Reevis), a mechanic at his dealership. Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota, and hires the two men to kidnap his wife Jean (Rudrüd) 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 Wade Gustafson (Presnell) that the ransom demand is $1,000,000, and keep most of the money for himself.

GMAC has been threatening to recall loans made for cars at the dealership Jerry manages after discovering accounting irregularities. 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 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 afinder’s fee that is insufficient to pay off his debts.

Carl and Gaear kidnap Jean, but on their way through Brainerd a Minnesota State Patrol officer stops them because the car lacks license plates. When Carl’s attempt to bribe the trooper fails, 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 the couple, who lose control of their car and swerve off the road, enabling Gaear to kill them.

The deaths are investigated by local police chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand), who is seven months pregnant. She deduces the chain of events and follows the leads that arise, including interviewing two prostitutes who serviced the criminals and tracing the license plates on their vehicle to Jerry’s dealership. After being informed that the criminals telephoned Shep Proudfoot, she drives to Minneapolis but acquires no information in interviews with Shep and Jerry.

Jerry contacts Wade, saying the kidnappers insist on dealing only with Jerry. Wade accepts this arrangement at first, but later changes his mind. When he meets with Carl at a parking garage, he refuses to give him the money until his daughter is returned. Angered by his demands and unexpected appearance, Carl shoots Wade. Before he dies, Wade shoots Carl in the face. Carl then kills the garage attendant on his way out. Jerry arrives at the scene just after Carl leaves. Later, Carl discovers that the bag he took from Wade contains a million dollars. He removes $80,000 to split with Gaear, and buries the rest by the side of the highway. At the hideout, Gaear has killed Jean. He later kills Carl with an axe after a dispute over the car.

Before leaving town Marge questions Jerry again, asking him about the car used in the Brainerd murders. When she asks to talk to Wade, Jerry storms out of the office after saying he will check the lot for the missing car. Jerry flees instead, causing Marge to phone the state police to find and arrest him. After following up on a tip, Marge drives to the lake and sees the kidnappers’ car. She arrives just in time to see Gaear feeding the last of Carl’s body into a wood chipper. Gaear tries to flee, but Marge shoots him in the leg and arrests him. Jerry is later arrested in a motel outside ofBismarck, North Dakota.

In the last scene, Marge and her husband Norm (Lynch) sit in bed together discussing his artwork, which has been selected as the design for a postage stamp, although not the most popular denomination of stamp.

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 itself 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.”

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

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 Craftsfrom Connecticut at the hands of her husband, Richard, who disposed of her body through a wood chipper.

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


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. According to the film’s dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, “the accent was another character.” She coached the cast using audio tapes and field trips. 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. 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.

Critical Response

Fargo was met with critical acclaim, with a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 67 critics.

Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert named Fargo the best movie of 1996. It was also Ebert’s fourth favorite of the 1990s. In his original review, Ebert called it “one of the best films I’ve ever seen” and explained that “films like Fargo are why I love the movies”.

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”.


"Fargo" Quiz