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Fargo is a American dark comedy, crime film produced, directed and written by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The film is about a car salesman who hires two men to kidnap his wife for $80,000 and a car, to divide between them. The crime leads to a series of murders that Marge Gunderson investigates. The film stars Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare and Harve Presnell.

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


In 1987, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), an Oldsmobile car salesman from Minneapolismarker, hatches a plan to end unspecified but severe financial troubles. Through a mechanic at his dealership, a Native American ex-convict named Shep Proudfoot, he enlists the service of Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and his partner Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), an ex-convict. At a bar in Fargo, North Dakotamarker, the three discuss Jerry's plan to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) who will be returned unharmed for a ransom of $80,000, half of which is to go to Jerry. The kidnappers receive the other half, as well as an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera from the dealership. Jerry's greater plan is to tell his wealthy but antagonistic father-in-law, Wade Gustafson, that the ransom is $1 million, intending to use the large difference to settle the debts he has accrued.

Even after cutting the deal with the kidnappers, Jerry tries to sell his father-in-law on a $750,000 investment in a 40-acre parking lot. Initially skeptical, Wade eventually shows some interest in the deal; Jerry contacts Shep to have the kidnapping plan called off, but he tells Jerry he has no direct contact with Carl or Gaear.

Jerry goes to meet Wade at his office to discuss the deal. Wade and his accountant, Stan Grossman, say they're ready to make the deal; however, Jerry misunderstood the arrangement: Wade's firm wants to invest in the property and pay Jerry a finder's fee. Jerry was intent on borrowing the $750,000 to invest it himself, presumably so he could gain control of the funds and use them to pay off his debts. Wade tells Jerry that he has no intention of loaning him the $750,000, but if Jerry has no objection, Wade wants to pursue the project on his own.

While Jerry is at the meeting, Carl and Gaear break into his house. With a lot of struggle, they kidnap Jean. When Jerry returns to his ransacked house, he calls and tells Wade about the situation. Jerry claims that the kidnappers insist that the police not be contacted or they will harm Jean. Wade reluctantly takes his advice, but only after the concurrence of Grossman.

Later that night, on Minnesota State Highway 371 near Brainerdmarker, the kidnapping takes a dramatic turn for the worse when a state trooper pulls over the two kidnappers because Carl has forgotten to put the temporary car-dealership license plates on the car. The trooper rebuffs his attempt at a bribe, then notices Jean lying in the backseat. Before the trooper can react, Gaear snatches a pistol out of the glove compartment and shoots him on the top of the head, then orders Carl to drag the body off the highway. A car drives by, speeding off once the two occupants witness the crime. Gaear takes the wheel of the Oldsmobile and pursues them at high speed. A few miles down the road, the witnesses' car skids off the highway and overturns. As Gaear pulls up, the driver pries himself out of the car and attempts to escape across a snowy field, but Gaear shoots him in the back while he is running. Gaear then approaches the overturned car, spots a young woman pinned inside the front passenger seat and calmly executes her with one shot.

The deaths are investigated the next morning by local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who is seven months pregnant. She quickly deduces the chain of events and follows the leads that arise, investigating the dealer tags on the murderers' vehicle and interviewing two dim-witted prostitutes whose services the kidnappers had employed. She discovers that Shep Proudfoot is linked to the murderers through phone records from a truck stop where the kidnappers met with the prostitutes. Marge decides to take a trip to Minneapolis for investigations and to get together with an old friend from high school named Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), who tells her he is now a widower and awkwardly tries to flirt with her before breaking down in tears.

Marge interviews Shep and Jerry, both of whom claim not to be involved in the situation. She asks Jerry whether his dealership is missing any tan Cieras, catching Jerry off-guard. Shep later goes after Carl (who has come to Minneapolis to collect the money from Jerry), interrupts him having sex with a call-girl and beats him for threatening his freedom on parole. Recovered, but humiliated and angry, Carl demands Jerry deliver him the money atop a parking garage; Wade, mistrustful of his son-in-law, decides to deliver the ransom himself. At the meeting at the garage, Wade refuses to hand over the money until his daughter is returned. Wanting the money, Carl shoots Wade in the stomach. Wade pulls a gun from his pocket and shoots at Carl, the bullet grazing his face. Furious and frustrated, Carl shoots Wade several times and kills him. As he leaves the parking garage with the money, Carl passes Jerry, who has followed Wade. Arriving atop the parking garage, Jerry encounters Wade's body. Leaving the garage, Jerry passes the lot attendant's booth and is horrified to discover that Carl has murdered the attendant as well.

The next day, Jerry must field phone calls from a GMAC representative from whom he has obtained a fraudulent loan, ostensibly for the purchase of cars for the dealership. The GMAC rep complains that he cannot read the vehicle identification numbers on the financing documents he faxed, and therefore cannot correlate the money ($320,000) with actual vehicles. The GMAC rep threatens legal action and an anxious Jerry sees his schemes collapsing around him.

Discovering that the case contains a million dollars, a stunned (and injured) Carl buries most of the money by the side of a remote, snowy prairie highway and crudely marks the location with an ice scraper so he can find it later.

Before leaving Minneapolis on her way back to Brainerd, Marge learns that her friend Mike lied to her about being a widower (he was really stalking the woman he claimed to be his late wife and is the subject of a restraining order). After hearing this, Marge returns to the car dealership and questions Jerry again because she suspects he too lied to her. Thinking he has been caught when Marge asks to see Wade, Jerry panics and leaves the interview, which is evidence enough for Marge to call the State Police to find and arrest him. Jerry packs up and abandons his son to flee.

Carl returns to his and Gaear's backwoods hideout on Moose Lakemarker (with the expected $80,000) and discovers that Gaear has apparently shot Jean for simply annoying him. In a dispute over who gets the Ciera, Carl tells Gaear that it belongs to him and storms out of the house. Suddenly, Gaear comes behind him with an axe.

Following up on a tip, Marge discovers where the kidnappers are hiding and comes on the property just in time to see Gaear pushing the last of Carl's body into a woodchipper. As Gaear flees across the frozen lake, Marge shoots him in the leg and arrests him. On the drive back to the station, Marge talks to Gaear, unable to comprehend why he can do what he does "for a little bit of money".

Jerry is later arrested in a motel outside Bismarck, North Dakotamarker while on the run. In the final scene, Marge and her husband, Norm, sit in bed together watching television, and they discuss his mallard artwork winning the three-cent-stamp award. "Two more months", Marge says with a sigh as Norm holds her and their unborn baby. The camera cuts to black. The fate of the hidden $920,000 remains unknown.

Cast and characters

Actor Character Notes
Frances McDormand Marge Olmstead-Gunderson the chief of police in Brainerd, Minnesotamarker, investigating the murder of three people near her city. Throughout the film, Marge is portrayed as the only competent character, and comes across as very polite, likable, and intelligent. Her pregnancy does not get in the way of her police work.
William H. Macy Jerome "Jerry" Lundegaard a Twin Citiesmarker car dealer who is heavily in debt and hires two men to kidnap his wife so he can collect the ransom from his wealthy father in law. At the end of the film, he is arrested for his involvement in the situation.
Steve Buscemi Carl Showalter a talkative small-time crook who is hired by Jerry to kidnap Jerry's wife. The people who run into him invariably describe him as "kinda funny-lookin'" in a "general kinda' way".
Peter Stormare Gaear Grimsrud Carl's partner. He is mostly silent. He is a heavy smoker of Marlboro and has a love of pancakes. He kills five of the seven characters that die in the film (the other two are killed by Carl).
Harve Presnell Wade Gustafson the wealthy owner of the Oldsmobile dealership where Jerry Lundegaard works and the father of Jerry's wife.
Kristin Rudrüd Jean Lundegaard Jerry Lundegaard's wife, who is kidnapped.
Tony Denman Scotty Lundegaard Jerry and Jean's son.
Larry Brandenburg Stan Grossman accountant and business partner of Wade Gustafson.
Steve Reevis Shep Proudfoot an ex-convict and mechanic at the car dealership. He puts Jerry in contact with Carl and Gaear.
John Carroll Lynch Norm Gunderson husband of Police Chief Marge Gunderson, and a wildlife artist vying to have his work selected for use on a postage stamp.
Cliff Rakerd Officer Olson policeman in Brainerd, Minnesota.
Bruce Bohne Officer Lou policeman in Brainerd, Minnesota.
Steve Park Mike Yanagita a high-school classmate of Marge Gunderson.
José Feliciano himself a singer
Bruce Campbell a soap opera actor (uncredited)


Fact vs. fiction

Fargo opens with the following text:

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 said, "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". He later noted, "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 Minnesotamarker setting was based on the fact that the Coens were born and raised in St. Louis Parkmarker, a suburb of Minneapolis.

On the special edition DVD's trivia track for Fargo, it is revealed that the main case for the movie's inspiration was based on the infamous 1986 murder of Helle Crafts from Connecticutmarker at the hands of her husband, Richard, who killed her and disposed of her body through a wood chipper. There was a rumor going around that a Japanese woman, Takako Konishi, died while searching for the missing money in the film, but the death was actually ruled a suicide and the media had invented the Fargo motive. The end credits to Fargo bear the standard "all persons fictitious" disclaimer for a work of fiction.


The title to the film is taken from the city of Fargo, North Dakotamarker, which plays a small role in the beginning of the film, seen only in a wideshot for only a few seconds following a short scene set in a bar. Although a subtitle states the scene is set in Fargo, the actual shooting location for the bar was in northeast Minneapolis. The rest of the film is completely set around Minnesotamarker, mostly in Minneapolismarker and Brainerdmarker. However, due to the mild winter of Minnesota during production, much of the film was in fact shot in North Dakotamarker. During an interview with Charlie Rose on the special edition DVD, the Coens stated that they titled the movie Fargo because it sounded more interesting than Brainerd.


The unseasonably mild winter weather of early 1995 forced the crew to move locations frequently to find suitable snow-covered landscapes. Fake snow had to be used for many scenes. Pools and streams of meltwater are visible in many scenes. Fargo was also shot very cheaply after the Coens' expensive box office flop, The Hudsucker Proxy.

Locations used during production include:
  • King of Clubs, a bar shown at the beginning of the film was located in Northeast Minneapolismarker on Central Avenue. It has since been razed to make way for housing for people who are HIV-positive.
  • The Pillsbury Ave. Minneapolis home of Doug Melroe and Denny Kemp includes the kitchen of the Lundegaards' house.
  • The "Wally McCarthy Oldsmobile" car dealership located in the Minneapolis suburb of Richfieldmarker, located off of Interstate 494marker and Penn Avenue. It has since been razed, and the site is currently home to Best Buy's corporate headquarters.
  • Ember's, a restaurant just west of the Louisiana exit on the frontage road (Wayzata Blvd.) of Interstate 394 in St. Louis Parkmarker. The location is now out of business and the building has been razed. It is now the location of an office building.
  • The kidnappers' hideout cabin is located north of Stillwater, Minnesotamarker.
  • The Edina, Minnesotamarker Police Station was used for interior shots of the Brainerd Police Station.
  • The Lakeside Club where Marge interviews the hookers is in Mahtomedi, Minnesotamarker.
  • Carl steals a license plate from the parking lot of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airportmarker.
  • Chanhassen Dinner Theatres was used for the José Feliciano concert.
  • The Minneapolis Club Parking Ramp (located on 8th St. and 3rd Ave, Minneapolis, Minnesota) was used for the scene where Wade delivers the money to Carl. The end of the scene where Carl exits the parking garage was actually shot at a different garage – the Centre Village Parking Ramp (down the street, located at 8th St. and 5th Ave.).
  • West of Bathgate, North Dakotamarker on Pembina Countymarker Highway 1 was the location of the statue of Paul Bunyan.
  • The scene where the old bartender is sweeping his driveway as he describes to the police officer the story of the man "goin' crazy out there at the lake" was filmed in the small town of Hallock, Minnesotamarker (one of the town's grain elevators is visible in the background).


Critical response

Fargo was met with universal critical acclaim. Film critic Roger Ebert named Fargo as his fourth favorite film of the 1990s (he also named it 'best of 1996'). 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". Many prominent critics named it 'best of the year' including Joel Siegel, Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, Gene Siskel, and Leonard Maltin. Fargo has the honor of being one of the very few films to ever receive a unanimous 'A' rating from the critical mass of ratings at Entertainment Weekly.

The film was ranked #84 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years...100 Movies" list in 1998 (although it was removed from the 2007 version) and #93 on its "100 Years...100 Laughs" list. The character Marge Gunderson was ranked #33 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains. In 2006, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congressmarker as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", currently one of the only five films to make the Registry in its first year of eligibility, and is one of the leading examples of the neo-noir and comedy genre.

Popular reaction

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 dialog 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.Additionally, most rural Minnesotans do not speak with an accent similar to that found in the movie and it is far less detectable 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.

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 prize (Best Director). Other festival screenings included the Pusan International Film Festival, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the Naplesmarker 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.

Awards and honors



Other honors

American Film Institute recognition


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

The main musical motif is based on a Norwegian folk song called "The Lost Sheep", or natively "Den Bortkomne Sauen". It has been recorded by Norwegian musician Annbjørg Lien on her album "Felefeber".

Other songs in the film include "Big City" by Merle Haggard, heard in the Fargo, North Dakotamarker bar where Jerry Lundegaard meets with kidnappers Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, 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. Approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes into the film (during the scene at the restaurant with Mike Yanagita) there is an instrumental (piano) rendition of Sometimes In Winter (Blood, Sweat & Tears) in the background. None of these songs appear on the soundtrack album.

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

Track listing

All selections composed by Carter Burwell.
  1. "Fargo, North Dakotamarker" – 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 Dakotamarker" – 1:02
  13. "Paul Bunyan" – 0:35
  14. "The Eager Beaver" – 3:10
  15. "Brainerd Minnesota" – 2:40
  16. "Safe Keeping" – 1:41
  17. *Album has an additional eight selections from the Barton Fink soundtrack.

Home video releases

  • The film has been released in several formats: VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-Ray.
  • A special edition VHS release came in 1996 that, along with the video tape, also included a snow globe depicting the wood chipper scene. When it was shaken, both snow and "blood" stirred up.
  • The film was first released on DVD on July 8, 1997 in a bare-bones edition and widescreen transfer. A "Special Edition" DVD was released on September 30, 2003.
  • A Blu-Ray version was released on May 12th, 2009.

Television spin-off

In 1997, a pilot was filmed for a television series based on the film. Set in Brainerd, it starred Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson. Directed by Kathy Bates, the episode was shown during Trio's 2003 "Brilliant But Cancelled" series of failed TV shows.

Fargo in popular culture

  • In South Park's episode "Prehistoric Iceman", a picture of Fargo is shown as part of the 1996 culture.
  • In the commentary of Mallrats creator Kevin Smith stated that since Fargo was shooting across the street while he was making his second film, Mallrats, he and the crew would often say "Fargo!" in a derisory manner - ironic because Fargo went on to be a huge critically acclaimed hit while Mallrats performed very badly.
  • In the King of the Hill episode "Now Who's The Dummy", Dale feeds Bobby's ventriloquist's dummy into a woodchipper.
  • In the "Past Tense" episode of The Venture Brothers, the character of Mike Sorayama is based on Mike Yanagita. Steve Park portrays both characters.


  2. All about the Woodchipper Murder Case, by Mark Gado
  3. Fargo from the Urban Legends Reference Pages
  4. (stock photo with location)
  5. At last, a real home
  7. Fargo (1996) - Filming locations
  8. Fargo Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes
  9. Fargo (1996): Reviews
  10. IMDB Fargo DVD Information

External links

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