Study Guide

Fargo

Fargo Introduction


Release Year: 1996

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Writer: Joel and Ethan Coen

Stars: Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, William H. Macy


  

With all that snow, Fargo must be an all-time holiday classic, right?

Um. No.

But Fargo is a classic, known for its innovative, wood-chipper-related corpse-disposal techniques and its soothing Minnesotan accents.

With this story of a small-city police chief investigating a gruesome triple homicide, the Coen Brothers (writing-directing real-life bros Joel and Ethan) demonstrated, yet again, that they were an artistic force to be reckoned with, possessing their own out-there aesthetic and distinctive tone. In Fargo, the everyday goings on of small-town Minnesota collides with scenes of bodies piling up and kidnapping schemes gone catastrophically wrong—classic Coen.

In the wake of this movie's release back in 1996, everyone was busting out their impressions of Minnesota accents (kind of like when Borat came out, but less annoying and offensive). The movie quickly scooped up accolades: the Coens won Best Director at Cannes, and Frances McDormand took home Best Actress at the Oscars for her portrayal of pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, tromping around in her winter parka, pursuing the bad guys with cheerful but relentless determination. The Coens also nabbed the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

The film got a 94% "fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and even that dueling duo of Siskel and Ebert agreed it was the best film of 1996. It even lived on as a super-successful television series nearly twenty years later, with the acclaimed first season of Fargo premiering on FX in 2014, produced by the Coens.

How'd they do it? Well, in creating Fargo, the Coen Brothers just went back to their roots. They were two Minnesota kids, originally hailing from the Twin Cities Metro Area, so they didn't even need to do much research to capture the local vibe. They just followed the classic advice everyone gives out in creative writing classes and wrote what they knew.

And the result is a hilarious, chilling and brilliant film. Or, as they say in Minnesota: its "not too bad, then, yah?"

What is Fargo About and Why Should I Care?

Did we watch Fargo? Yah, you betcha!

Are we stuck doing the accent? You're darn tootin'!

Oh, the accents aren't reason enough to care about the movie? Ah, gosh. Oh, geeze.

Don't worry, though: you don't have to love doing an impression of a Midwestern-nice Minnesotan of Scandinavian descent to love this movie. In fact, it's almost impossible not to love Fargo… no matter where you're from, or what kind of accents you love trotting out. (G'day, mayte.)

Fargo explores the themes that have driven the Coen Brothers throughout their career as filmmakers—a sense of the absurd, human beings trapped by their own mad devices, and of the random windings of fate. The film goes deep into the mysteries of character. What are Jerry Lundegaard's motives for staging this kidnapping? What's going on in Gaear Grimsrud's head, and why does he love wood chippers so much?

Answer? No one knows.

And that's the thing about Fargo—it's a movie that's content to let you not know. It willingly shows you the brutal devastation of incompetence and petty-mindedness, without hammering home a moral. It shows you true decency and domestic love without holding it up as the end-all and be-all. It even introduces seemingly meaningless scenes—what's up, Mike Yanagita?—just to make the movie more complex.

The Coen Brothers can be seen as the crowning Absurdists of today's cinema… and they can be also seen as the crowning Realists. They show us a world that is both totally out of whack and totally relatable. These two bros consistently hit it out of the park when it comes to a wide, wide range of film specialties—they go from gritty noir to belly laughs as easily as James Bond's Aston Martin goes from zero to sixty.

And Fargo is widely considered to be their finest achievement: a movie that straddles the line between gloom and hope, gore and cuddles, and hilarity and what-hath-humanity-wrought existential angst.

And—oh yah—those accents are pretty much the best. Oh yah. You got that right.

Trivia

Despite the opening text that appears on screen, Fargo was not based on a true story. The Coens had various explanations for why they did this. One was that they thought that viewers might be more accepting of the gruesome violence if they thought it was a true story. But maybe that was messing with our minds, too. The film's crime was a mélange of several incidents: a real kidnapping in Minnesota, and a woodchipper murder in Connecticut (see below).
(Source)

In 2001, the media widely reported that a Japanese woman had died while searching for the buried suitcase from Fargo, after having traveled all the way to Minnesota to look for it. However, this wasn't really true. Initially, the police thought this was the case, because of a confusing conversation they'd had with the woman prior to her death. It turned out to be a suicide.
(Source)

Those Hautmans, who beat out Norm for the 29-cent stamp, are real wildlife artists and good friends of the Coens. Their art has found its way to many stamps. Yes, Virginia, there is a Federal Duck Stamp Contest.
(Source)

A collector's edition VHS tape of Fargo released in the '90's came with a snow globe depicting the wood chipper scene. Sweet.
(Source)

The idea of the wood chipper body-disposal technique was based on an actual murder that took place in 1988 in Connecticut (even if the rest of the movie was not based on a specific case). Richard Crafts, an airline pilot, murdered his wife and disposed of her body by putting it through a wood chipper. He's in prison at the moment, fortunately.
(Source)

Fargo Resources

Websites

Fargo IMDB Page
Trivia, goofs, cast members, technical specifics. This database lives up to its title.

Fargo Rotten Tomatoes Page
Check out the (generally glittering) reviews of Fargo, collected from its debut through the present, if you want. Some of these critics probably have some insights.

Fargo Wikia
If you really want to go deep into the ancient Minnesotan lore of Fargo, you should check this site out. It covers both the movie and the TV series.

For Coenheads Only
All things Coen. If you think Fargo was "quirky," try watching Barton Fink.

Books

Coenology 101
This guy goes academic on the Coens, extrapolating deep ideas from their cinematic work. Curl up with it in a bubble bath or while pondering reality in a classic, fist-under-chin thinker's pose.

Can't Get Enough?
Want more Coen? Dive into this collection of interviews. You get it straight from the horse's mouth (or horses' mouths, more accurately) in this essential compendium. The cover photo is worth the price of the book.

Coenology 102
If you want to explore the wider Cosmos of Coen, this book is the place. Fargo swims alongside The Big Lebowski, Miller's Crossing, The Man Who Wasn't There, and other contemporary classics.

The Brothers Grim
Great title, yah? Here's another deep, probing analysis of the Coens. As you can tell by the title, it focuses on their macabre aspects. Of which there are many.

AP Coenology
And here's another analysis of the Coens oeuvre, taking us right up until recent times with 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis.

TV Adaptations

Fargo on FX (2014-Present)
Borrowing elements from the original movie, this critically acclaimed TV series crafts a compelling narrative all its own. It was created by Noah Hawley, with the Coens' approval.

Fargo (2003 TV Movie)
This one-off TV movie wasn't nearly as successful as the current TV show. But, hey, Kathy Bates directed it. Also, it picks off where the movie left off, as a kind of sequel. (The Coens weren't involved).

Articles and Interviews

Roger Ebert's Review of Fargo
Here's the famous critic's positive take on Fargo.

Stranger than Fiction
This feature from The Guardian chronicles the story of a Japanese woman who journeyed to Minnesota in order to commit suicide—though originally, it was believed that she was searching for the money-filled suitcase from Fargo, thinking it was based on a true story as the movie claimed it was. Someone even made a movie about it.

30 Years of Coens
This Atlantic writer delves into his own personal feelings about Fargo on the 30th anniversary of the Coens' career.

Easter Egg Hunt
After the hit TV series' first season ended, this writer from Entertainment Weekly analyzed all the references the show made to the movie and its universe.

Minnesota Weird
This writer goes deep on the Coens, offering an assessment of their entire worldview.

Real Good, Then
This New York Times profile dates back to the year the movie came out, exploring how Frances McDormand prepared for her role and "Minnesota Nice.".

Video

The Official Fargo Trailer
It's always kind of weird to watch official trailers from the '90s… like, you weren't expecting someone to save them, but they're still around. But, hey, this is a good one.

Another Official Trailer
In case one official trailer didn't satisfy your insatiable jones for official Fargo trailers… here's another.

Every Time a Character Says "Yah" in Fargo
Obviously, the internet needed to get around to this…

Two Thumbs Up
The most famous film-reviewing duo review Fargo: no surprise, they both liked it. Ebert said it was like an entire "film-festival" in one movie, and Siskel said it was the best film of the year (actually, they both did).

Best Actress? You Betcha!
McDormand receives the Oscar for best actress. She's pretty floored, though it was an easy pick, in our opinion.

Bill on Jerry
A short YouTube video with William H. Macy discussing his character.

Audio

NPR Does the Coens
This isn't a Fargo-centric interview, but it gives plenty of insight into the Coens' craft.

Fargo Tunes
Here's the Fargo soundtrack, featuring a motif plucked from a Norwegian folk song, "The Lost Sheep."

Images

The Coen Brothers
Here's the pair of masterminds behind Fargo: Ethan is on the left, Joel is on the right.

Best-and-We-Mean-Best Actress
The Coens at work on the set with Frances McDormand.

Tomorrow It's Gonna Get Really Cold
Even the directors had to suit up.

Would You Buy a Used Car from this Man?
Here's a great still of Jerry What-Possibly-Could-Go-Wrong Lundegaard.

The Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox Statue in Bemidji
This Bunyan statue wasn't just built for the movie—it's an actual classic landmark. But it's not in Brainerd; it's in Bemidji, MN. Plus, unlike the movie's Bunyan, this guy's got Babe the Blue Ox in tow.

The Wood Chipper in Use
Check out this still from the movie's most infamous scene… if you can stomach it.

The Promotional Wood Chipper Snow Globe
This snow globe must be one of the weirdest pieces of promotional junk ever released.

Drop Your…Woodchipper?
Chief Gunderson has no fear (well…) in this classic photo of Marge apprehending Gaear in the grisly act.