Study Guide

Fargo Themes

  • Choices

    Coke or Pepsi? Sox or Yankees? Take your spouse to dinner or hire someone to kidnap them? We all face these difficult choices in life. In Fargo, we get to see how Jerry handles that last one. His decision to order the kidnapping of his wife in order to trick his father-in-law into giving him money ends up destroying everything. The consequences are nothing like what he expected—seemingly random twists of fate throw everything off track.

    The same goes for Gaear and Carl: their decision to accept Jerry's offer ends up going in a completely unanticipated direction (not that these guys seem particularly good at or interested in anticipating anything).

    Questions About Choices

    1. In the Coens' universe, are the wicked always punished and the good always rewarded?
    2. Jerry's choice affects his own fate—but how does it affect the innocent people around him? Do they get any recompense for what happens to them?
    3. Do you think that Jerry's plan could have worked? Or were circumstances such that the scheme was always bound to fail?
    4. How do some of the small choices Marge makes reveal her character?

    Chew on This

    We're responsible for the decisions we make. You reap what you sow, and all that. Like Jerry.

    Sometimes, acts of God or twists of fate intervene to such an extent that you seem to reap bad consequences regardless of the choices you make. Like Jean.

  • Crime and Criminality

    The movie centers around a crime: Jerry ordering the kidnapping of his wife in order to swindle his father-in-law out of the ransom money. But it doesn't depict crime in a conventional way. The criminals aren't smooth, cool dudes. In fact, they're not very bright. Jerry might be a little more normal than Carl and Gaear, but, overall, he just seems desperate and clueless. They all share the qualities sociopaths—total disregard for others, impulsivity, poor judgment, inability to learn from experience lack of remorse. Does this describe our bad guys? You betcha.

    There's no glamour to the criminal underworld in Fargo. It's just ridiculous and pathetic.

    Questions About Crime and Criminality

    1. How does the way Fargo depicts crime differ from other crime films you've seen?
    2. What causes people to become criminals in the movie? What are the differences (and similarities) between Jerry's motives and the motives of Carl and Gaear?
    3. Do you think that the way crime happens in Fargo is true to life?
    4. Do you think the Coens believe there's such a thing as a criminal personality?

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, no one in the film gets away with his crime. There's justice in the world, yah.

    There aren't many in-between characters in this movie. They're either monstrously bad or real good, then.

  • Family

    In Fargo we see Marge and Norm in the process of building a family… and we see Jerry effectively dismantling his own family, concocting a scheme that will inadvertently lead to the deaths of his wife and his father-in-law. They're starkly different pictures.

    Marge and Norm seem content with the way things are; they're living within their means and enjoying the simple things. By contrast, Jerry is frantically attempting to pay off a debt and get quick cash, which brings his world collapsing down around him. The movie juxtaposes these two images of family life, providing some teachable moments. Watch and learn, young padawans.

    Questions About Family

    1. What makes Marge and Norm's marriage happy? (If you think their marriage is happy, that is).
    2. Does Jerry ever consider his own family? Or is he just scrambling to help himself?
    3. What do Marge and Norm understand that Jerry doesn't understand about family?
    4. Why do the Coens always show the Gundersons eating together or watching TV in bed?

    Chew on This

    Marge's family life is portrayed as corny, uber-conventional, and unsophisticated: mediocre art on the walls, too much TV, low-end restaurants. We're meant to be judgmental about it.

    Even though it's corny and unsophisticated, the film's message is that this is what a happy life is really about. We feel guilty for being judgmental about it.

  • Greed

    In early Christian teachings, greed was one of the Seven Deadly Sins. In Dante's Inferno, the fourth circle of hell is reserved for greedy people. In Fargo, greed lives up to its nasty rep as something that ends in disaster for everyone, starting with Jerry Lundegaard.

    We don't get to see why Jerry needs money—maybe it's because he's about to get nailed for extortion by taking those loans on the non-existent cars—we just see the consequences. The more he desperately tries to cover his losses, the worse things get.

    Everyone in the film who's motivated by money comes to a violent end, even Wade, whose business is completely legal. Jerry's wife is collateral damage in this greed-fest. Only Marge and Norm, with their ability to enjoy a simple life, seem to have the right idea. They seem pretty happy with what they've got.

    Questions About Greed

    1. Would knowing why Jerry needs (or wants) money change our perception of him? Explain.
    2. Can greed ever be—as the villainous Gordon Gecko put it in Wall Street—"good"? Or is it always an evil, as Fargo might imply?
    3. What's the "right" amount of money to have? That is, what is enough and what is too little or too much? How do the characters in Fargo approach this question?
    4. What's Marge's philosophy about money?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Jerry's father-in-law is wealthy doesn't help matters for Jerry; it just pushes him to do crazy things for money.

    Greed, being an "extreme" kind of motivation, is totally out of place in the modulated emotional lives of the everyday Minnesotans in this film. It's just not done. It ain't that kind of place.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    Fargo is full of things that are a little off—strange bizarro gags; juxtapositions of incredibly different images and events; unlikely scenarios. The whole movie involves a kidnapping plan that spirals off into absurdity, culminating with a grotesque, yet somehow bizarrely amusing sequence, in which Carl's corpse gets stuffed into a wood chipper.

    There are tons of odd moments like that (Gaear, a murderer, wanting to eat pancakes for breakfast and lunch; a pregnant chief of police, Mike Yanagita) and together they create an image of a very random and unexpected universe. Maybe it's not totally random—there's still justice in it, since all the bad guys get their just desserts. But it definitely feels off.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    1. Which character seems to most fully inhabit an absurd world? Is there anything absurd about Marge's life?
    2. Is there ultimately any kind of moral order to the universe depicted in Fargo? Or is it basically chaotic?
    3. Are some of the more bizarre scenes actually so bizarre? Could it be that they're actually realistic, but just not familiar? Although it seems absurdly funny to see Carl and Gaear watching the "Tonight Show" in bed with the hookers after sex, wouldn't this be something they'd likely do in a seedy motel with nothing else to do?

    Chew on This

    The film's moral is that there's no explaining life or people. Things fall apart, people do inexplicable stuff, and all you can do is hang on for dear life.

    If it weren't for the character of Marge, the absurdity would get out of hand and the movie would slide off the rails.

  • Visions of the North Country

    One of the main things that makes Fargo unique is its setting. If it had been set in L.A. or New York, it might've been a somewhat more typical crime drama. But the fact that it's set in an out-of-the-way area, like small-town Minnesota (though Minneapolis isn't quite so small), helps make it more unsettling.

    It changes everything—the way the characters talk, the way they relate to each other, the things they value, and… did we mention the way they talk? It helps make the whole texture and vibe of the movie genuinely different. The Minnesota accents constantly remind us where we are.

    Questions About Visions of the North Country

    1. Does Fargo portray Minnesota (and North Dakota, since that's where Jerry goes briefly at the beginning) in a positive or negative light? Some mixture of the two?
    2. How would the movie have been different if it had been set in a more typical location for a crime drama—like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago?
    3. Is the movie condescending towards people from Minnesota? How would you feel about if you were from there (or if you are from there)?
    4. Is the movie's version of Minnesota all that different from other parts of America? What are some of the contrasts and similarities you can think of?

    Chew on This

    The film suggests that "Minnesota nice" is just a screen for fear and resentment bubbling below the surface.

    The image of Marge and Norm cozying up in bed is the film's antidote for the cold and barren landscape outside.