A man drives through a bleak, snowy landscape towing a Cutlass Ciera. It's Jerry Lundegaard, a sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership in Minneapolis. He arrives at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota to meet with two criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud. He's arranged for them to kidnap his wife Jean back in Minnesota in order to extort ransom money from his father-in-law, Wade Gustafson. He promises them a cut of the ransom money—and the brand new Ciera, which he stole from his own company's lot.
It's unclear why Jerry needs the cash, but he plans to take a million dollars in ransom from Wade and leave the kidnappers with only $80,000. A foolproof scheme, yah? Carl and Gaear agree, and visit a couple of prostitutes at a truck stop before heading to Minneapolis.
Jerry almost calls off the plan when Wade seems ready to go in on a real-estate deal with him, but it turns out Wade wasn't really going to let him get in on the deal in a big way. So, the kidnapping goes as planned, with Jerry's terrified wife crashing down the stairs, wrapped in a shower curtain and knocking herself unconscious.
However, things start to go seriously wrong when Carl and Gaear get pulled over by a state trooper on the highway. Gaear shoots the state trooper in the head, and then kills a couple that witnessed the crime while driving by. They abscond with Jean to a lakeside hideout with really bad TV reception.
Enter Marge Gunderson, the movie's heroine and main character. She's the chief of police in Brainerd, Minnesota, near where the bodies of Gaear's victims have been found. She manages to interview the prostitutes who slept with Gaear and Carl, and starts to uncover their trail. She's a nice, cheerful, smart cop. She also happens to be seven months pregnant.
They Fought the Law, and the Law Won
Meanwhile, Jerry's ransom plans are going further awry. Things are starting to close in. Marge, who's following some leads to Minneapolis, gets a lead on a guy who received some phone calls from Gaear and Carl. She shows up at Jerry's dealership to ask him about a missing Ciera reported to be driven by the suspects.
His tough, headstrong father-in-law wants to take more of a role in freeing his daughter from her kidnappers. After listening in on a phone call in which Carl's telling Jerry to bring him the money tonight, Wade rushes out ahead of him, bringing a suitcase with a million dollars to Carl in a parking garage. But Carl's unhappy that Wade's arrived instead of Jerry. When Wade demands to see his daughter, Carl shoots and kills him, but he manages to shoot Carl in the jaw before he dies.
Marge, still on the trail of the Ciera, goes back to interview Jerry again. He freaks out under the pressure of Marge's questioning, and under the pretense of checking the lot for the Ciera, he takes off.
Carl hides the million dollars in the snow, planning on getting it later. He brings back forty thousand for Gaear, who's been watching Jean at their remote cabin hideout. Gaear, annoyed with Jean for being too noisy, has killed her. Carl returns to the hideout, and after an argument about who gets the Ciera, Gaear murders Carl with an ax.
After one of her officers picks up a lead from a local bartender, Marge discovers the criminals' hideout, where Gaear's busy putting Carl's body through a wood chipper. She shoots, injures, and successfully arrests him. Marge just can't understand what motivates people to do these terrible things.
Meanwhile, the cops track Jerry down to a motel where he was trying to flee and drag him out screaming. Cut to Marge and her husband, Norm, peacefully watching TV in bed and happily awaiting the birth of their child. For now, at least, all's right with the world.
- The movie begins with an opening text, a flat-out lie informing us that what we're about to see is based on true events that happened in Minnesota in 1987.
- Next, a car towing another car drives on a highway through the snowy landscape.
- Except for the car slowly emerging out of the desolate scene, there's nothing else in sight.
- The driver heads to a tavern where he meets with two men, introducing himself as Jerry Lundegaard.
- The men, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud, are annoyed, since Jerry's apparently an hour late. Jerry says he's here at the time he said he'd be.
- Guess there was a misunderstanding. Foreshadowing alert: the first of many things that go wrong.
- They get down to business. Jerry's friend Shep Proudfoot recommended these two guys as criminal associates for a job Jerry needs them to do: he wants them to kidnap his wife. The plan is for them to ask for ransom money, which Jerry will get from his rich father-in-law.
- Jerry will collect the money, give the kidnappers an $80,000 payoff and he'll throw in the car he's brought along with him, an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.
- This would be a killer (pun intended) product placement if they hadn't stopped making Cieras years ago.
- They'll get half the money now and half later. Jerry will keep part of the ransom money and get Jean back unharmed.
- Jerry won't tell the men why he needs the money.
- Carl wants to know, but eventually caves and agrees to do the job.
- Arriving back home in Minneapolis, Jerry greets his wife, son Scotty, and father-in-law Wade, who's watching college hockey on TV.
- They eat dinner, and Scotty leaves to go to McDonalds with his friends.
- Wade warns Jean about McDonalds. Who knows what the kids do there? (Um. They eat burgers.)
- Jean reassures him that he's just going to meet some friends.
- Jerry discusses a real estate deal with Wade. He wants to convince him to loan him $750,000 to buy forty acres to build a parking lot, but Wade's not interested.
- We're back in the Ciera with Carl and Gaear, who are arguing about whether to stop for pancakes for lunch after having had pancakes for breakfast.
- The obvious answer is that you can never have too many pancakes, but…
- … Carl doesn't want pancakes and says he knows a place where they can hook up with some prostitutes.
- At his office in Wade's car dealership, Jerry's dealing with an customer who's mad —Jerry apparently told them he could get them a cheaper car without sealant on it.
- Now the car's here with the sealant and the customer won't pay.
- Jerry can't placate the customer, and the customer calls Jerry a liar.
- The customer eventually agrees to pay for the car even though Jerry obviously pulled one over on him.
- Meanwhile, Carl and Gaear are having sex with two women at a motel in different beds in the same room.
- Afterwards, they lie in bed and watch "The Tonight Show."
- Back home, Jerry and Jean discuss Scotty's poor academic performance.
- Wade calls and tells Jerry that he and his advisor have looked the real-estate deal over and that they're interested.
- Jerry goes to see Shep Proudfoot in the garage and tries to get Carl and Gaear's number from Shep.
- He's thinking he can call off the kidnapping thanks to the possible real-estate deal, but Shep doesn't know how to get in touch with them.
- Meanwhile, Gaear and Carl are approaching Minneapolis. Carl's annoyed at Gaear for being so quiet.
- (Fun fact: Gaear has eighteen lines in the whole film.)
- Back in his office, Jerry speaks with a man from GMAC who says he can't read the serial numbers on the form Jerry sent him for cars that Jerry borrowed money for.
- He needs to be sure that the cars actually exist. Ha ha.
- Jerry says they exist, all right, and he'll send him a new copy. He looks worried.
- At the Lundegaard home, Jean's watching TV. Lots of TV watching in this movie.
- Suddenly, Carl and Gaear break into the house and chase her. She manages to bite Gaear on the hand as he grabs her.
- Carl and Gaear can't find her, but it turns out she's hiding in the shower.
- As she tries to run away, she ends up crashing down the stairs covered in a shower curtain and knocks herself unconscious.
- At Wade's office, he and his advisor Stan Grossman meet with Jerry about the real estate deal. To Jerry's dismay, it turns out that they want to give him a "finder's fee" instead of loaning him money to get in on the deal itself.
- Wade explains why it's crazy to loan Jerry all that money.
- Jerry goes back to his car and has a minor tantrum
- He drives home to discover that his wife's been kidnapped, just as he planned.
- The house is empty, some windows are broken, and there's a shower curtain on the floor.
- We hear Jerry at home, telling Wade on the phone that Jean's been kidnapped.
- Oops, not really. He's just rehearsing the lines so he can sound appropriately upset.
- He finally calls Wade's office and asks to speak with Wade in a calm, normal voice.
- At night, Carl and Gaear are driving long a road near Brainerd MN, with Jean tied up in a bag on the backseat. She's makes noises until Carl threatens to shoot her.
- A state trooper pulls them over, since Carl forgot to put tags on the car. Carl tries to bribe the cop, which makes him suspicious.
- The cop notices Jean in the backseat and Gaear suddenly shoots him in the head.
- Carl's really unsettled by this turn of events. Gaear tells him to get the trooper's body off the road.
- While Carl's dragging the cop's body, two unlucky people drive by in a car. Gaear commandeers the wheel, peels off, and chases them down.
- After their car flips off the road, he shoots them both.
- Things are clearly getting way out of hand.
- A woman and a man are both sound asleep in bed. The phone rings and the woman answers it.
- After receiving some disturbing news, she tells the caller she'll "be there in a jif."
- It turns out she's Marge Gunderson, the chief of police in Brainerd, Minnesota, and she's been called to the scene of a triple-homicide.
- She's also very pregnant. Her sleepy husband Norm insists on making her a hot breakfast before she leaves.
- Aww, shucks. That's sweet.
- Marge gets to the crime scene. She and Lou (one of her officers) inspect the scene and Marge quickly figures out the basics of what happened.
- Marge briefly gets an attack of morning sickness and then recovers, hungry for more breakfast.
- She makes some observations about the probable nature of the criminals, and says she also wants to pick up some worms (probably as fishing bait) for her husband on the way back.
- She's pretty calm about the whole situation.
- They go to look at the trooper's car and Marge makes some more deductions about what happened.
- Lou says he identified part of the license plate numbers and the model of the car (a tan Ciera) from a note the dead trooper made.
- He said the plate started with DLR, so he has the state police looking for a car with a license plate like that.
- Marge points out to the clueless Lou that the license plate was probably a dealership plate—"DLR" for "dealer."
- When she sees that Lou's embarrassed, she tells him a joke to change the subject.
- At a restaurant, Jerry, Wade, and Stan are discussing the kidnapping.
- Jerry tries to explain that the kidnappers only want to speak with him, even though Wade's the one who's putting up the money.
- Jerry says they want a million dollars, which is much more than he actually told Carl and Gaear to ask for, indicating he plans on keeping most of that money for himself.
- Wade wants to call the cops for help, but Jerry and Stan argue against this.
- Outside, Stan tells Jerry that they'll get the money together.
- Stan asks how Jerry's son is doing; Jerry had forgotten about him.
- At home, Jerry comforts his weeping son, Scotty. He tells them they'll get his mom back, but he needs to keep it secret for now so the kidnappers don't hurt her.
- Carl and Gaear arrive at a lakeside cabin with Jean. She tries to run away, but is hooded and bound, so she just ends up falling over in the snow.
- Carl finds it pretty funny and watches her stumble around for a while.
- At the Brainerd Police Station, Marge meets up with Norm, who's brought her some Arby's for lunch.
- She gives him the bag of night crawlers she bought. Norm looks appreciatively at the worms then chows down. (On the Arby's, not the worms.)
- They talk about a painting contest Norm is entering.
- Lou tells Marge that the Ciera the bad guys were using was seen at a motel, the Blue Ox, where they apparently "had company." Marge says it's a great lead.
- Marge interviews the two sex workers who slept with Carl and Gaear.
- The two women aren't much help at first—just saying that Carl was "funny looking" and that Gaear looked "like the Marlboro Man."
- But they tell Marge the two men were headed to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul), which is useful info.
- Back at Carl and Gaear's lakeside hideout, Carl is flipping out at their lousy, snowy TV.
- Marge and Norm are watching TV in bed. They go to sleep and Marge is awakened by a call from an old high school friend, Mike Yanagita.
- He says he saw her on TV in a report about the triple homicide and got to thinking about her.
- Marge is a little puzzled but says she's glad to hear from him.
- At the auto dealership, Jerry's busy showing a car to a customer. He gets called to his office, where he has a phone call from Carl.
- Carl tells him that he and Gaear ended up murdering three people after the kidnapping. Now, Carl's demanding the full $80,000 ransom from Jerry.
- Jerry gets another phone call from the guy who still needs those car serial numbers. It will become a legal matter if Jerry doesn't give them to him. Afterwards, Jerry angrily knocks things off his desk.
- At a buffet, Marge and Norm are eating a big lunch. Another cop, Officer Olson, approaches and tells Marge they found some phone numbers the kidnappers apparently called from the motel. One call was to Shep Proudfoot in Minneapolis.
- Marge is confused for a sec. "It's a name," the officer tells her. Oh.
- Marge says she'll drive down there.
- Norm looks slightly taken aback, but he doesn't say anything but, "Yah?"
- At Jerry Lundegaard's house, he's arguing with Stan and Wade, both of whom want Wade to be able to deliver the ransom money to the kidnappers himself.
- Jerry's insistent that the kidnappers only want to deal with him, but Wade says he doesn't want Jerry mucking things up. With all due respect.
- Wade says it's his money and his show.
- Stan agrees.
- Marge checks in at the Radisson and phones a Minneapolis detective about Proudfoot.
- She asks if he knows a good place for lunch.
- Cut to Carl who's entered an airport parking lot in his car. He stops the car and steals a license plate from another to put on the Ciera.
- Leaving the lot, the parking lot attendant politely demands that Carl pay for his time in the lot, even though Carl didn't actually park and take a flight. Carl flips out but finally pays up.
- Jerry goes down to the garage looking for Shep, and someone tells him Shep's talking to a cop.
- Jerry sees Shep and Marge talking and stares anxiously.
- Marge is questioning Shep about those phone calls from the alleged killers.
- Shep tells Marge that he can't remember when Carl and Gaear phoned him.
- She says that Shep has a long criminal record from the past, and politely suggests that he cooperate if he doesn't want to get sent back to prison.
- Ya' see, associating with criminals is a violation of his parole.
- To Jerry's horror, Marge comes to his office next and asks him if a tan Ciera was stolen from his lot recently.
- Jerry isn't handling this well. He's pretty freaked out.
- He denies that any cars are missing from the lot, and Marge leaves.
- Jerry then feverishly tries to get in contact with Shep. No luck.
- At the bar at the Radisson, Marge meets her old high school friend Mike Yanagita.
- They catch up, but then Mike tries to sit next to Marge in the same booth, with his arm over her shoulder. She asks him to sit back in the other seat across from her.
- Seeing that he's embarrassed, Marge explains that she just wants to be able to see him without having to turn her head.
- Mike says he's an engineer working for Honeywell. Pretty super, says Marge.
- Things quickly get weird. Mike says he's married to a girl named Linda they both knew from high school, but she died of leukemia.
- He ends up weeping and said he contacted Marge because he was lonely and he's sorry.
- Marge is understanding.
- Carl's at José Feliciano concert with a bored escort.
- He's having sex with her in a dirty room when Shep bursts in, pulls her off him, and starts whaling on Carl.
- For good measure, he beats up a guy from across the hall who complains about the noise they're making. The escort runs away screaming.
- Shep beats Carl with a belt. He's not happy that that the cops are on his tail.
- Carl calls Jerry and demands the ransom money. Jerry says he'll deliver it now.
- But Wade listens in on the conversation and runs out with the million dollars (and a gun) to deliver it before Jerry can stop him. Jerry speeds after him.
- At the parking garage, Wade meets Carl.
- Carl flips out when he sees that Wade isn't Jerry, and Wade says he won't give Carl the money unless he can see Jean.
- There's a brief standoff, then Carl shoots Wade multiple times.
- Wade manages to shoot Carl once in the cheek before he keels over dead.
- Carl takes the money and drives off, holding rags against his very bloody face.
- Jerry arrives too late. He finds Wade's body and puts it in his trunk. Then, as he drives out, he's sees that Carl's shot the parking lot attendant, too.
- That's five bodies so far.
- Back at home, he lies and tells Scotty that everything's okay.
- Back in Brainerd, Officer Olson interviews a man who has a lead on the homicide.
- The man, Mr. Mohra, says he was tending bar when a funny-looking guy came in and tried to find out where he could find a prostitute.
- Mohra refused to help him, and then the guy claimed Mohra must think he's a jerk and that the last person who thought he was a jerk ended up dead.
- Mohra says the man is probably staying out on Moose Lake. He kept saying "I'm going crazy out at the lake."
- Carl, his bleeding cheek bandaged with a napkin, drives down the highway, then removes and counts some of the bills from the suitcase.
- He buries the remainder in the snow near a fence off the side of the road.
- We get a shot of an infinite stretch of white sameness along the road.
- Taking that in, Carl marks the place with a small windshield scraper he sticks in the snow.
- At her hotel room in Minneapolis, Marge is talking to an old classmate who tells her that Mike Yanagita's supposed wife, Linda, isn't really dead, and that Mike was never even married to her. In fact, he was just stalking her.
- He's actually been suffering from psychiatric problems and living with his parents.
- Marge is pretty surprised.
- Before leaving town, Marge goes back to Jerry's office. He tries to say he's too busy, but she says she'll just need a minute.
- Marge asks if Jerry's sure he hasn't had a Ciera stolen from his lot.
- Jerry claims he hasn't, but refuses to say how he knows this, or if he's done any inventory.
- Marge pushes gently. When Jerry gets angry, she just looks at him and says he has no right to get "snippy" with her.
- She's on to him.
- He's getting more and more defensive. Clearly, he has no idea what to do.
- When Marge persists, Jerry finally storms out saying he'll do a lot count and make sure they have all the cars.
- But wait! Marge sees Jerry fleeing the dealership, implicating himself in the scheme. She's shocked and gets ready to call the local cops.
- We're back with Carl and Gaear at their hideout by the lake.
- Gaear's watching a soap opera and has murdered Jean for being "too noisy."
- Carl doesn't even seem to notice, but he ends up arguing with Gaear.
- Gaear insists on splitting the Ciera, with one of them paying the other for half of it in exchange for keeping the whole car.
- Carl flips out and rants at Gaear, saying this is ridiculous and that he (Carl) has been shot in the face and done all this extra work. He's not splitting nothing.
- Carl storms out of the cabin. Gaear immediately follows him and murders him with an ax.
- Marge is driving around Moose Lake where the bartender, Mr. Mohra, said the guy who threatened him was probably staying.
- She's chatting with one of the officers over the radio when she spots the Ciera parked at a cabin.
- She parks the cruiser and investigates, discovering Gaear in the gruesome process of packing Carl's body into a wood chipper.
- She's wide-eyed but not deterred.
- He sees her, throws a block of wood at her, and takes off across the frozen lake.
- Marge shoots and wounds him in the leg. She arrests him and drives him back to the station in her police car.
- She tries to talk to him about how there's more to life than just money.
- She just doesn't understand why people do these things.
- If Gaear is having a reaction to all this, he isn't letting on.
- He gazes out the window as they pass the statue of Paul Bunyan with his ax.
- We see some police officers outside a motel where Jerry is staying. After Jerry fails to come to the door, they bust in and arrest him as he yells and struggles to get free.
- Game over.
- Back at the Gunderson home, Marge and Norm are watching TV in bed.
- Norm says they announced the result of the painting contest he'd entered.
- His mallard duck painting is only going to be on the three-cent stamp; his competitor got the twenty-nine cent stamp.
- Marge reassures him that people always need three-cent stamps when the postage goes up. It's an important stamp.
- Norm seems to take a little comfort in this.
- The movie ends as they curl up next to each other, looking at Marge's belly and thinking about their baby due to arrive in two months.