Study Guide

Fargo Analysis

  • Snowy, Empty Landscapes

    We don't really get to see the forests and lakes of Minnesota (of which there are many—it's the Land of 10,000 Lakes, after all). In this film, we just see bleak, empty plains filled with snow. At the beginning of the movie, for instance, a single bird wings its way through the snowy spaces, heightening the sense of isolation and disorientation. You can't even see a horizon, just sky and snow blending together.

    Joel Coen commented: "The landscapes we used were really dramatic and oppressive. There were no mountains or trees, only desolate flatlands extending into the distance. That's what we wanted to put on the screen."

    Why did the Coens opt for this hyper-bleak, empty kind of landscape? For one thing, it highlights the morally empty universe that Carl, Gaear, and Jerry inhabit. There's what you might call an existentialist subtext here: you have a blank slate, and you're free to draw on it, but you need to accept that consequences. Once you've made your chilly bed, you better be ready to lie in it.

    Matt Seitz, the Salon writer, felt that "When you watch a Coens' film, you're not seeing reality but its exaggerated and distilled representation, an actual landscape reconfigured as a moral one." In other words, sometimes a snowfield isn't just a snowfield.

    On the other hand, Marge has managed to create a comfortable world for herself in the midst of this snowy nothingness. She and her husband enjoy a placid, happy existence, based around food, family, various hobbies (painting, fishing), and watching T.V. in bed. Their bedroom is like a cocoon against all the cold heartlessness on the outside.

    Fun fact: the Coens shot this film during one of the warmest winters on record, and a lot of snow had to be manufactured or brought in from Canada and North Dakota.

  • Statue of Paul Bunyan

    The statue of Paul Bunyan in Brainerd was actually built specifically for the film. Evidently, Bunyan is Brainerd's most famous former denizen, and the statue is the kind of roadside attraction you find in small town America, like the World's Biggest Ball of Twine. It's the first thing Marge mentions when calling Jerry Lundegaard on the phone: Brainerd is "home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox."

    It looks sort of creepy, though—Bunyan looks kind of like an ax murderer. In one shot, the statue is lit from below, making it look especially sinister. And, after Marge arrests Gaear, he stares out the window of the police car, looking at the Bunyan statue as they drive by. Perhaps he's remembering how he just killed Carl with an ax?

    Of course, Paul Bunyan wasn't real, and thus not actually from Brainerd. Sorry to burst your blue ox-shaped bubble.

  • The Suitcase Buried in Snow

    There's something obviously hilarious about Carl burying the suitcase containing a million dollars out in the snow, and marking it with a windshield scraper. He thinks he's going to come back and get it, and live it up with his winnings, but the eeriness and futile atmosphere of the scene—the tiny scraper marking out the suitcase in the snowy endlessness—indicates to the viewer that no one's coming back for that suitcase. Carl's idiocy is making sure that he can't even hold onto this dumb stroke of good fortune.

    We see this scene as the ultimate representation of futility in the film. You just know that, one way or another, that money is lost for good.

    P.S. Do you watch the TV show Fargo? On the show, the suitcase is found by a similarly desperate character...and all that money doesn't help him in the long run.

  • The Wood Chipper

    If you want to see the actual wood chipper from this infamous scene, head up to Fargo—it's on display at the visitor's center.

    The wood chipper scene is probably the movie's most iconic moment: all that bloody snow, the foot still sticking up out of the chute, and Gaear going about his gory business evidently untroubled is pretty unforgettable.

    Naturally, Marge is disturbed when she encounters a woodchipper being used for something that's definitely not good. But she's not traumatized. Like with the triple homicide at the beginning of the movie, she's pretty casual about it. "And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper," she says to Gaear, in one of the most understated lines of dialogue in film history.

    There's something super-disturbing about Carl's sock still being on his foot as his leg goes into the chipper. It adds to the realism, but it's still a gross and unsettling detail, especially when Gaear starts hitting the sole with a block of wood to make it go in. It's the ultimate statement about how stupid crimes like this end: badly. Instead of Carl being a millionaire, he's hamburger. He's worse than dead; he's just muck spattered on the snow.

  • The Three-Cent Stamp

    Earlier in the film, we see that Norm's working on a painting of some mallard ducks as part of a competition to get a picture on a stamp. He doesn't win the prize he wanted, however: he only gets his painting on the 3-cent stamp.

    Norm tells Marge at the end of the movie, as they watch TV in bed: "Hautman's blue-winged teal got the twenty-nine cent. People don't much use the three-cent." But Marge is genuinely encouraging and proud of him:

    MARGE: Oh, for Pete's sake, of course they do! Whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps.

    Like Herman Melville says, they're both lowering "their conceit of attainable felicity." They're trying to be happy with what they have instead of searching for something really extraordinary. Apparently, the Gundersons are succeeding; they seem happy, awaiting the birth of their first child. One website about living the simple life thought that the phrase "three-cent stamp" would be their new shorthand for "be happy with what you've got."

    P.S. Get this: on April 3, 1988—a few months after the movie takes place—the U.S. government raised the price of postage by exactly three cents (source). Marge is absolutely right, and Norm's three-cent stamp will soon be in much more demand than the design that ostensibly beat his.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    When we first see Marge, a pregnant police chief in Brainerd, MN, we're already pretty deep into the movie. We've witnessed Jerry's plot play out and observed the inept kidnapping attempt and the triple-homicide that Carl and Gaear commit.

    We shift gears suddenly, and see Marge lying peacefully in bed with Norm, the evidence of his mallard duck art project nearby. It's a vision of domestic bliss and stability, outside of Jerry, Carl, and Gaear's world.

    Call To Adventure

    Suddenly, Marge—being the chief of police—gets a phone call about a triple-homicide out on the highway. One of the murder victims is a state trooper, and the others are an unfortunate couple that were just passing by at the wrong time. She yanks herself out of bed and heads over.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Marge doesn't refuse the call—she's too awesome. But she does have to drag herself out of bed, which can be difficult when you're seven months pregnant.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Marge doesn't really have a mentor. She's pretty much the most competent person in the entire movie. Nevertheless, the movie does sort of fill in the "Mentor" stage when Marge meets with Officer Lou at the crime scene.

    Lou's not really a mentor, but he's able to fill her in on some of the details. Yet Marge politely demonstrates her superior competence by correcting his police work. She's the chief, after all.

    Crossing The Threshold

    A little later, they learn that the car the bad guys were using—a Ciera—was parked at the Blue Ox Motel, a trucker joint where the perps slept with prostitutes. Marge is able to interview the two sex workers, but gets nothing useful from them—until they tell her that the two criminals were headed to the Twin Cities.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    After interviewing the prostitutes, Marge tries to pry information out of Shep Proudfoot and Jerry Lundegaard himself. At first, Jerry's able to avoid helping her by denying that any Ciera is missing from his lot.

    Also, she has a weird dinner with Mike Yanagita, a former classmate who claims his wife died from leukemia, when, in reality, he doesn't have a wife. He was just stalking the woman he claimed to have married (who's still alive). This was a personal test for Marge, who believes his story and only finds out later that he was lying to her. This is just about her only failure in the film.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    Marge visits Jerry again to ask him about the Ciera. This time, Jerry gets "snippy," finally agrees to do an inventory on his car lot, but instead flees the interview. Effectively, he's identified himself as the perpetrator. Meanwhile, one of Marge's officers, Olson, talks to a local bartender, Mr. Mohra, who says that he talked to a suspicious guy who claimed to be a murderer. This leads Marge out to Moose Lake, where Carl and Gaear are staying.

    Ordeal

    Marge spots the Ciera at Carl and Gaear's cabin, arriving just in time to see Gaear stuffing the last of Carl's corpse into a wood chipper. At first, Gaear can't hear her over the noise of the chipper, but when he does, he throws a block of wood at her and tries to run away.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Marge shoots Gaear in the leg as he tries to run out onto the lake. She successfully arrests him, surveys the casualties at the cabin, and takes him away in her police car.

    The Road Back

    Marge drives Gaear back to the station in her police car. She lectures him, saying that she doesn't understand how he and Carl could've murdered so many people just for a little money.

    Resurrection

    Marge is triumphant—she's cracked the case, and arrested the surviving perp. At the same time, police officers track Jerry down and arrest him at a motel. Unfortunately, a long trail of bloodshed has led up to this point. Jean, Carl, Wade, a parking lot attendant, an innocent couple, and a state trooper have all been murdered.

    But Marge herself has definitely succeeded. It's not necessarily a resurrection, because Marge has never really changed in the course of the story. She just gets back in bed with Norm where she was when we met her, and for now, her world is back in its comfortable routine.

    Return With The Elixir

    At the end, Marge watches TV in bed with Norm. He's disappointed that his duck painting is only making it onto a three-cent stamp, but Marge optimistically points out that people buy those whenever the postage is raised. She's able to comfort him effectively, and seems really proud of him. They both contentedly await the birth of their child.

  • Setting

    Minnesota, 1987

    And Best Actor Goes to… The State of Minnesota

    It's a teensy bit of a cliché to say, "[Name of place] was like a character in this movie." That being said, Minnesota is definitely like a character in this movie.

    Of course, it's all a little exaggerated. The accents aren't really quite so heavy in real life… but most observers seem to agree that it's not inaccurate. The movie gives a pretty good depiction of "Midwestern nice," the polite way that Marge, the airport parking lot attendant, Reiley Diefenbach, and others have of dealing with people.

    Many of the characters are pleasant, yet very reserved. They're not overflowing with emotion or conversation. Carl is kind of the exception, being explosively irritable and extremely talkative, but he doesn't have the accent. It's unclear if he's even a Minnesota native—we're guessing not, because doesn't have the strikingly Scandinavian surname.

    Despite the title, most of the film's action doesn't really take place in Fargo, North Dakota, a town on the Minnesota border. It's mostly centered around Minneapolis and Brainerd (known as the home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox), though there's a foray into Fargo, where the kidnapping deal is arranged. The movie was actually filmed primarily around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

    Ain't That Kinda Place

    In reality, Minnesota is the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" with plenty of forests. But judging by the movie, you'd get the impression that its just one vast, bleak, frozen plain, covered with a few feet of snow.

    Evidently, the Coens wanted the viewers to see it this way—desolation is what they were after. It gives the movie a blank canvas on which the devious actions of human beings twist around until they chart their own end. The Coens were actually raised in Minnesota, which they once described as "like Siberia but with more family-style restaurants." And a remote, desolate, Siberian atmosphere definitely permeates this film.

    Additionally, the smaller settings within the film create a definite vibe. The abundant TV, junk food, and obsession with cars locate the film squarely in the 20th Century.

    You get a sense of the culture of the place from the buffet where Marge and Norm eat, the José Feliciano concert where Carl takes an escort, the seedy motels, and the bar where Jerry meets Carl and Gaear at the beginning. Apparently it has a criminal underbelly, but Minnesota is really all about the small town values. As the bartender, Mr. Mohra, tells the hooker-seeking Carl: "Yah, but this ain't that kinda place."

  • Point of View

    Main Character Shift

    At first, we think Jerry's the main character. The movie follows him as he plots his wife's kidnapping, hires the criminals to complete the task, and sees it all fall to pieces, as the criminals screw up and murder three people as they go on the run, kidnapped wife in tow.

    As we see Jerry's designs disintegrate, we suddenly have a new main character: Chief of Police Marge Gunderson. Unlike Jerry, Marge is a heroine, not the anti-hero Jerry would've been if he'd remained the focus of the movie. Marge is the antithesis of Jerry.

    Whereas Jerry doesn't really consider what'll happen to his wife during the kidnapping, , Marge and her husband Norm are attentive and loving. Jerry unsuccessfully tries to navigate a world that grows increasingly chaotic. But Marge manages to restore order to the world by solving the crime and being content with a simple life. She's smart, careful, and thoughtful. He's a fool.

    Their two narratives intertwine, and end up in totally different places. We last see Jerry getting arrested at a motel room by the police, screaming and crying desperately. At the same time, Marge is enjoying a cozy domestic moment watching TV in bed with her husband. They each reap what they've sowed.

  • Genre

    Dark Comedy, Neo-noir, Crime Drama

    Yeah, Fargo is a dark comedy—or at least plenty of people would call it that. In a way, though, it might be the movie's realism that makes it so darkly amusing. The criminals aren't super-villain masterminds or the kind of elite bad guys who populate James Bond films: they're just unscrupulous and incompetent weirdoes like the "dumb criminals" n those viral videos.

    The good guys, on the other hand, like Marge and her husband, are seen doing things that plenty of real-life heroes would experience, but that you might not see in a more typical genre film. They eat Arby's, buy night crawlers, have morning sickness, and get a duck painting put on a three-cent stamp. You could view these as ironic touches, but they're strangely true to life. There's this implication that real life actually is a dark comedy.

    As Joel Coen said in an interview:

    We are often asked how we manage injecting comedy into the material. But it seems to us that comedy is part of life. Look at the recent example of the people who tried to blow up the World Trade Center [in 1993]. They rented a panel truck to use for the explosion and then, after committing the crime, went back to the rental agency to get back the money they left on deposit. The absurdity of this kind of behavior is terribly funny in itself.

    Also, the movie can be categorized as a crime drama and "neo-noir." It uses some of the classic tropes of the film noir—digging into the seedy underworld of the lawless and corrupt—while at the same time reversing them.

    Instead of having some Sam Spade/ Humphrey Bogart private eye as the main character, the Coens pick a pregnant small-town police chief. And they suck all the Hollywood cool right out of the criminal underworld; there's no luster to what these guys do. They're immoral and incompetent.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title Fargo has a nice, evocative sound to it. If the Coens had titled the movie Brainerd or Minneapolis it just wouldn't have been the same, even though more of the action takes place in those places. But "Fargo" feels like the name of an outpost at the end of the world. It had the appropriate vibe.

    Also, the movie begins with a trip to Fargo: it's where Jerry goes to make the deal with Carl and Gaear to kidnap his wife. So it's the center of the most fateful decision in the film, the place from which the ensuing mishaps all emanate.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    After Marge's catches Gaear stuffing Carl's body into the wood chipper, she arrests him and saves the day (well, sort of, considering how many people are dead), lectures him on the stupidity of committing murder for a little money, and winds up triumphant and safe at home.

    Unfortunately, her husband Norm didn't get the prize he wanted in the stamp picture contest. But, while watching TV in bed, Marge cheers him up, saying that people use the three-cent stamp whenever the postage goes up. They express their love for each other and reflect happily on the child they'll be having soon:

    NORM: Two more months.

    MARGE: Two more months.

    This vision of domestic bliss stands in total contrast to a world where people meet hookers in seedy motels, plan kidnappings of their own wives, and get fed into wood chippers.

    Marge doesn't do that kind of stuff: she works hard, takes comfort in her husband and future child, and holds onto her small town values. The movie ends with a corny but sincere vision of happiness and security. The Gundersons are getting it right in a way that Jerry, Carl, and Gaear simply never understood.

  • Shock Rating

    R

    You can't jam a dead guy into a wood chipper and sneak away with a PG-13 rating. That's just not the way the MPAA rating system works.

    And there are plenty more instances of shocking violence: a state trooper's blood spattering on Carl's face, the cold-blooded murder of a cowering young woman, the senseless murder of a parking attendant, and the kidnapping. There's some explicit sex in the movie besides, though it's appropriately weird. So yeah: this movie puts the "R" in Fargo.