Fargo (1996 film)

Fargo is a 1996 black comedy crime thriller film written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Frances McDormand stars as Marge Gunderson, 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). The film was an international co-production between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Fargo (1996 movie poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoel Coen
Produced byEthan Coen
Written by
  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
Music byCarter Burwell
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Edited byRoderick Jaynes
Distributed byGramercy Pictures
Release date
  • March 8, 1996 (1996-03-08) (United States)
  • May 31, 1996 (1996-05-31) (United Kingdom)
Running time
98 minutes[1]
  • United States[2]
  • United Kingdom[2]
Budget$7 million[3]
Box office$60.6 million[3]

Filmed in the United States during the end of 1995, 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 Awards nominations, including Best Picture. McDormand won Best Actress and the Coens won Best Original Screenplay.

The film was selected in 2006 for preservation in the National Film Registry of the United States 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][5] In 1998, the American Film Institute named it one of the 100 greatest American films in history. A Coen-produced FX television series of the same name, inspired by Fargo and taking place in the same fictional universe, premiered in 2014 and received critical acclaim.[6]


In 1987, Jerry Lundegaard, the sales manager of an Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis, is desperate for money. On the advice of dealership mechanic and parolee Shep Proudfoot, Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota and hires Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud to kidnap his wife Jean. Jerry promises them a new Oldsmobile and half of the $80,000 ransom he says he intends to extort from his father-in-law Wade Gustafson, who owns the dealership.

Jerry pitches Wade a lucrative real estate deal and believes Wade has agreed to loan him the $750,000 he needs to finance it, so he unsuccessfully attempts to call off the kidnapping. Wade and his accountant Stan Grossman inform Jerry that Wade intends to make the deal himself and pay Jerry only a modest finder's fee.

Carl and Gaear kidnap Jean and transport her to a remote cabin in Moose Lake. A state trooper stops them near Brainerd for driving without displaying temporary registration tags. When the trooper rejects Carl's clumsy bribe and hears Jean whimpering in the back seat, Gaear shoots him, then chases down and kills two passers-by who witnessed the scene.

The following morning, Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson, who is seven months pregnant, discovers the dead trooper was ticketing a car with dealer plates and that two men driving a dealership vehicle checked into the nearby Blue Ox Motel with two call girls and placed a call to Proudfoot. After questioning the prostitutes, Marge visits Wade's dealership, where Proudfoot feigns ignorance and Jerry insists no cars are missing. While in Minneapolis, Marge reconnects with Mike Yanagita, a high school classmate, who awkwardly tries to romance Marge before breaking down, saying that his wife has died.

Jerry tells Wade the kidnappers have demanded $1 million and will deal only through him. In light of the three murders, Carl demands Jerry hand over all of the $80,000 he believes is the entire ransom.

Carl is with another call girl in a Minneapolis hotel room when Proudfoot enters and attacks Carl for bringing him under suspicion. Carl then orders Jerry to deliver the ransom immediately, but Wade insists on bringing it himself. Wade meets Carl at a parking garage and insists he will not hand over the money without seeing Jean. Enraged, Carl pulls a gun and shoots Wade. Wade is carrying a pistol and fires back, wounding Carl in the jaw. Carl kills Wade, takes the briefcase containing the ransom, and drives away.

On the way to Moose Lake, Carl discovers the briefcase contains $1 million. He removes $80,000 to split with Gaear, then buries the rest in the snow alongside the highway. At the cabin, Carl finds that Gaear killed Jean because she would not be quiet. Carl says they should split up and leave immediately, and they argue over who will keep the car Jerry gave them. Carl uses his injury as justification, shouts insults at Gaear, and attempts to take the vehicle. Gaear kills Carl with an axe.

Marge learns from a friend that Yanagita has no wife and is mentally ill. Reflecting on his lies, Marge returns to Wade's dealership. Jerry nervously insists no cars are missing and hurriedly exits his office after saying he will double-check his inventory. As Marge waits, she sees Jerry drive away, so she calls the state police.

Marge drives to Moose Lake after a local bartender reports having heard a "funny-looking guy" brag about killing someone. She drives by the cabin and sees Carl and Gaear's car. As she investigates, she discovers Gaear feeding Carl's dismembered body into a wood chipper. Gaear attempts to flee, so Marge shoots him in the leg, then arrests him. Shortly afterward, North Dakota police arrest Jerry at a motel outside Bismarck.

Marge's husband Norm tells her his painting of a mallard duck has been selected for a three-cent postage stamp. He complains that his friend's painting won the competition for a twenty nine-cent stamp. Marge reminds him that many people use smaller denomination stamps whenever prices increase and they need to make up the difference. Norm is reassured, and the couple happily anticipates the birth of their child.




The Coens initially considered William H. Macy for a smaller role, but they were so impressed by his reading that they asked him to come back in and read for the role of Jerry. According to Macy, he was very persistent in getting the role, saying: "I found out that they [the Coen brothers] were auditioning in New York still, so I got my jolly, jolly Lutheran ass on an airplane and walked in and said, 'I want to read again because I'm scared you're going to screw this up and hire someone else.' I actually said that. You know, you can't play that card too often as an actor. Sometimes it just blows up in your face, but I said, 'Guys, this is my role. I want this.'"[7] Ethan Coen later remarked, "I don't think either of us [Coen brothers] realised what a tough acting challenge we were handing Bill Macy with this part. Jerry's a fascinating mix of the completely ingenuous and the utterly deceitful. Yet he's also guileless; even though he set these horrible events in motion, he's surprised when they go wrong."[8]

The parts of Marge Gunderson, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud were written with their respective actors in mind. Peter Stormare, who played the role of Gaear, was supposed to play the part of Eddie Dane in the Coens' earlier film Miller's Crossing, but was unable to commit due to commitments to a stage production of Hamlet. When he was not filming, he would visit neighboring places with Swedish sounding names. Stormare noted that his character was different from his real life personality.[citation needed]

At first, Frances McDormand was excited about working with the Coens, but was rather surprised when she found out that they wrote Marge for her. McDormand felt that what separated Marge from other female characters written by the Coens is that the latter fell short. She learned how to use and fire a gun and spent days talking with a police officer that was pregnant much like Marge and also developed a backstory for her character along with John Carroll Lynch. After seeing the movie, McDormand noted that much of Marge was modeled after her sister Dorothy who is a Disciples of Christ minister and chaplain.[9]


Fargo was filmed during the winter of 1995, mainly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and around Pembina County, North Dakota.[10] 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 northeastern North Dakota, though not in or near the actual towns of Fargo and Brainerd.[11]

Original Paul Bunyan sculpture used in the motion picture Fargo

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.[12] It was demolished in 2003, along with most other buildings on that block of Central Avenue, and replaced by low-income housing.[13] 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 24-foot Paul Bunyan statue was built for the film along 101st Street NE (near the corner of 143rd Avenue NE) west of Bathgate, North Dakota.[citation needed] The Blue Ox motel/truckstop was Stockmen's Truck Stop in South St. Paul, which is still in business. Ember's, the restaurant where Jerry discusses the ransom drop with Gustafson, was located in St. Louis Park, the Coens' hometown; the building now houses a medical outpatient treatment center.[14]

The Lakeside Club, where Marge interviewed the two younger women, 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.[14] 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,[15] 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.[14]

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 prop.[14] After the movie's release, by some accounts, Brainerd was invaded by shovel-toting moviegoers searching for the buried ransom cash, inspired by the spurious "based-on-a-true-story" announcement in the opening credits. In 2001, a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi was found frozen to death near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. A rumor emerged that she had been searching for the buried money, but her death was actually ruled a suicide.[16]


Fargo/Barton Fink: Music by Carter Burwell
Soundtrack album by
ReleasedMay 28, 1996
GenreFilm score
Coen brothers film soundtracks chronology
The Hudsucker Proxy
Fargo/Barton Fink: Music by Carter Burwell
The Big Lebowski

As with all the Coen brothers' films, except O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis, the score to Fargo is by Carter Burwell.[17] The main musical motif is based on a Norwegian folk song, "The Lost Sheep" (Norwegian: Den bortkomne sauen).[18]

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, which 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.[17]

Track listingEdit

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
9."Dance of the Sierra"1:23
10."The Mallard"0:58
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
Total length:43:15

Claims of factual basisEdit

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.

However, the closing credits bear the standard fictitious persons disclaimer used by works of fiction.[19] Regarding this apparent discrepancy, the Coen brothers claimed 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," said Joel Coen. "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."[20]

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.[21][22] 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."[23]

The film's special edition DVD contains yet another account, that the film was inspired by the 1986 murder of Helle Crafts from Connecticut at the hands of her husband, Richard, who disposed of her body through a wood chipper.[24]

There is a long history of authors placing factual disclaimers at the beginning of fictional works; one of the earliest of these is the gothic novel The Castle of Otranto written by Horace Walpole in 1764.


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.[25] Dialect coach Liz Himelstein maintained that "the accent was another character". She coached the cast using audiotapes and field trips.[26] 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.[27] 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. The 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.[25]


Critical responseEdit

Frances McDormand (pictured in 2015) garnered critical acclaim for her performance and won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Fargo holds an approval rating of 94% based on 96 reviews, with an average rating of 8.72/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "Violent, quirky, and darkly funny, Fargo delivers an original crime story and a wonderful performance by McDormand."[28] At Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 85 out of 100, based on 24 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[29] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.[30]

Arnold Wayne Jones, writing for the Dallas Observer, called the film an "illuminating amalgam of emotion and thought", praising the directing and writing from the Coen brothers.[31] From Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum lauded the performance from Frances McDormand and stated that the film was "dizzily rich, witty, and satisfying."[32] In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane singled out McDormand for praise: "Her character—seven months pregnant, polite to a fault, smart yet slow—is only a breath away from caricature, yet McDormand unearths a surprising decency there, and in the process she pretty well rescues the film."[33] USA Today journalist Mike Clark also praised the performance of McDormand:

"McDormand's uproariously sly-spry performance connects with Roger Deakins' bleakly beautiful photography to create one of the Coens' most consistently successful outings, albeit one that plays it even closer to the vest than usual. For a current movie that simply effervesces with the macabre, check out The Young Poisoner's Handbook. For a nifty bit of nastiness from two of our most dependably provocative filmmakers, Fargo will fill the bill."[34]

On the other side of the spectrum, Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss criticized Fargo for its use of Minnesota nice, the accent used in the film. In his review, Corliss stated that "After some superb mannerist films, the Coens are back in the deadpan realist territory of Blood Simple, but without the cinematic elan."[35] (Conversely, Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, deemed Fargo "much more stylish and entertaining" than Blood Simple).[36] James Berardinelli, writing for his own website, ReelThoughts, gave the film three stars out of five, stating that it was "easy to admire what the Coens are trying to do in Fargo, but more difficult to actually like the film."[37]

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both ranked Fargo as the best film of 1996,[38] with Ebert later ranking it fourth on his list of the best films of the 1990s.[39] Fargo was added to the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board on December 27, 2006.[5] In 2010, the Independent Film & Television Alliance selected the film as one of its "30 Most Significant Independent Films" of the last 30 years.[40]


Fargo being projected on the Radisson Hotel in Fargo, ND

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.[41] 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 then tallest building, the Radisson Hotel.[42]

Box officeEdit

Released theatrically in the United States on March 8, 1996, Fargo launched in 36 theaters, and grossed $1,024,137 in its first week.[43] In the film's third week, Fargo was released in 412 theaters, and accumulated a total box office gross of $5,998,890.[44] On March 27, 1997, Fargo had its last viewing in theaters in the United States, closing the domestic gross of the film at $24,281,860.[45] Internationally, Fargo was released in the United Kingdom on May 31, 1996, in Canada on April 5, 1996, and in Australia on June 6, 1996, bringing the film's international gross to an estimated 36 million.[46] All together, Fargo grossed a total of $60,611,975 at the box office.[3]


Award⁣ Date of ceremony⁣ Category⁣ Recipients⁣ Result⁣ Ref.
Academy Awards March 24, 1997 Best Picture Ethan Coen Nominated⁣
Best Director Joel Coen⁣ Nominated⁣
Best Actress Frances McDormand Won⁣ [47]
Best Supporting Actor William H. Macy Nominated⁣
Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen Joel and Ethan Coen Won⁣
Best Cinematography Roger Deakins Nominated⁣
Best Film Editing Roderick Jaynes Nominated⁣
American Film Institute 1998 AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies Fargo
June 13, 2000 AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Fargo
June 2003 AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Marge Gunderson
#33 Hero
American Society of Cinematographers 1996 American Society of Cinematographers Award for
Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases
Roger Deakins Nominated
BAFTA Film Awards April 29, 1997 Best Direction Joel Coen Won [51]
Best Film Fargo Nominated
Best Actress in a Leading Role Frances McDormand Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen Nominated
Best Cinematography Roger Deakins Nominated
Best Editing Roderick Jaynes Nominated
Belgian Film Critics Association 1997 Grand Prix Fargo Nominated
Cannes Film Festival May 1996 Best Director Joel Coen Won
Palme d'Or Fargo Nominated
Golden Globe Awards January 19, 1997 Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Fargo Nominated [52]
Best Director Joel Coen Nominated
Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical Frances McDormand Nominated
Best Screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen Nominated
Golden Satellite Awards January 15, 1997 Best Film Fargo Won [53]
Best Director Joel Coen Won
Best Actress – Drama Frances McDormand Won
Best Actor - Drama William H. Macy Nominated
Best Supporting Actor – Drama Steve Buscemi Nominated
Best Editing Roderick Jaynes Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen Nominated
Independent Spirit Awards March 22, 1997 Best Film Fargo Won [54]
Best Director Joel Coen Won
Best Male Lead William H. Macy Won
Best Female Lead Frances McDormand Won
Best Screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen Won
Best Cinematography Roger Deakins Won
National Board of Review 1996 Best Director Joel Coen Won [55]
Best Actress Frances McDormand Won [56]
National Film Preservation Board December 27, 2006 National Film Registry Fargo Added [5]
New York Film Critics Circle January 5, 1997 Best Film Fargo Won [57]
Best Actress Frances McDormand Nominated
Saturn Awards July 23, 1997 Best Action or Adventure Film Fargo Won [58]
Best Actress Frances McDormand Nominated
Best Director Joel Coen Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Awards February 22, 1997 Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role Frances McDormand Won [59]
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role William H. Macy Nominated
Writers Guild of America Awards March 16, 1997 Best Original Screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen Won [60]

Home mediaEdit

Fargo has been released in several formats: VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes download.[61] 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".[62] PolyGram Filmed Entertainment released Fargo on DVD on July 8, 1997.[63] In 1999, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who acquired the rights to the film through their purchase of Polygram's pre-March 31, 1996 library, released the film on VHS as part of its "Contemporary Classics" series. A "Special Edition" DVD was released on September 30, 2003, by MGM Home Entertainment, which 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 Lundegaard's arrest "Outside of Bismarck, North Dakota" has been inserted digitally and moved from the bottom of the screen to the top.[63] 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. On April 1, 2014, in commemoration for the 90th anniversary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film was remastered in 4K and reissued again on Blu-ray.[46] On May 3, 2017, Shout! Factory announced a 20th anniversary collector's Steelbook edition on Blu-ray, limited to 10,000 copies.[64] The Steelbook was released on August 8, 2017.[65]

Television seriesEdit

In 1997, a pilot was filmed for an intended 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 aired in 2003 during Trio's Brilliant But Cancelled series of failed TV shows.[66]

A follow-up TV series inspired by the film, with the Coens as executive producers, debuted on FX in April 2014.[67] The first season received acclaim from both critics and audiences.[68][69][70][71] Existing in the same fictional continuity as the film, each season features a different story, cast, and decade-setting. The episode "Eating the Blame" reintroduced the buried ransom money for a minor three-episode subplot.[72][73] Three further seasons have been made thus far; the fourth was released on September 27, 2020.[74]

See alsoEdit

  • Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter—a film about a young Japanese woman who becomes obsessed with Fargo, believing the events it depicts to be real.


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