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Should I Watch..? 'Fargo' (1996)

Updated on April 3, 2022
Benjamin Cox profile image

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Promotional poster for the film
Promotional poster for the film | Source

What's the big deal?

Fargo is a comedic crime thriller film released in 1996 and was written, edited, produced and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. The film is set in 1987 and sees a heavily pregnant police chief investigating a roadside shooting after a local car dealer hires two career criminals to kidnap his wife in order to extort a ransom from her wealthy father. The film was a winner with critics and audiences like, earning a number of award nominations and a box office return of $60 million - not bad for a budget of just $7 million. The film has been selected for preservation in the Library of Congress in its first year of eligibility, one of only six films in history to do so. It also led to the acclaimed TV series of the same name as well as the 2014 film Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter which was based on an urban legend surrounding this film.


4 stars for Fargo

What's it about?

Jerry Lundegaard, a car salesman in Minneapolis, is seriously strapped for cash so he follows a tip-off and meets with career criminals Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud. Jerry arranges for the two crooks to kidnap his own wife Jean in order to secure a ransom payment from her wealthy father Wade Gustafson. Carl and Gaear agree to half of the ransom money and a brand new car, which Jerry complies with. Afterwards, Jerry has a change of heart and tries to cancel the deal but he's too late - his wife is already missing and Carl and Gaear are on the run after shooting dead a nosy cop and a couple who witnessed the shooting.

Investigating the murders, pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson slowly begins joining the dots together and questions Jerry about his missing wife. With the arrangement rapidly getting out of hand, Jerry becomes ever more desperate to get out of his self-styled mess while the partnership of Carl and Gaear becomes ever more strained...


What's to like?

For viewers bored of explosions and cheap titillation, Fargo offers much relief in the form of a dark, witty escapade that could only come from the minds of the Coen brothers. The script twists and turns and is constantly surprising as things spiral completely out of control. Macy's performance at the centre of the film is both brilliantly funny and heart-breaking as he sets in motion a chain of events that he has no control over. Buscemi is perfectly suited to this kind of indie-fare and provides the fast-talking brains to Stormare's menacing muscle. But the film belongs to McDormand whose faultless accent and characterisation brings the film a much-needed reality check.

Fargo is also a wonderfully shot movie with snowy landscapes and remote rural locations underlining the possibility that this is some forgotten corner of the US with its own rules and regulations. Pretty it may be but it still has its queasy moments - the violence in the picture might not be as frequent as you're used to but remains just as graphic. The whole thing has an odd ambience to it reminiscent of a David Lynch picture - think Twin Peaks and you're not far off. But however unsettling the film is, it never loses that crucial plausibility that makes the film relatable, that all of us are a few bad decisions away from being caught in the sort of nightmare seen here.

McDormand's blistering performance is undoubtedly the best of her career...
McDormand's blistering performance is undoubtedly the best of her career... | Source

Fun Facts

  • None of the interior or exterior scenes were actually filmed in Fargo, North Dakota. Shooting took place all over Minnesota, North Dakota and Canada.
  • Despite the end credits, the body in the field was not played by Prince - who is famously from Minneapolis - as this was an in-joke. The part is actually played by J. Todd Anderson, a storyboard artist who worked on the film.
  • The film's opening disclaimer that it's based on a true story is not entirely true itself. The screenplay uses elements from several crimes committed in the Minnesota area instead like the 1962 Eugene Thompson case and the 1972 Virginia Piper kidnapping.

What's not to like?

What's truly strange is that like the characters shown, the film itself seems to exist in its own little microcosm with its own rules. The Coens seem to be trying to confuse the viewer as much as possible - the opening disclaimer that the film is based on a true story is false, character names sound more Swedish than American and I spent much of the movie wondering exactly why it was set in 1987. What did that have to do with anything besides poking fun at fashions and musical tastes? Fargo could easily have been set in the present day without too much trouble and the Coens are talented enough film-makers for me to believe that every aspect of a film is for a reason. Damned if I can figure these reasons out, though.

Apart from being completely demanding of your attention (which is no bad thing when the acting is this good), there isn't much wrong with Fargo besides being perhaps a little too odd for its own good. I enjoyed seeing the total destruction of Jerry's hair-brained scheme and his ever-decreasing calmness in the face of mounting problems. I loved McDormand's positivity and joy in the face of a seemingly endless blizzard of issues. Most of all, I appreciated the film for treating me like an intelligent adult as precious few efforts seem to manage this these days.

Macy also makes the best of a rare leading role and excels as Lundegaard.
Macy also makes the best of a rare leading role and excels as Lundegaard. | Source

Should I watch it?

With career performances from both McDormand and Macy, Fargo is a properly dark and grim murder mystery enlivened with a bitter sense of humour running throughout. Like many films from the Coen brothers, this is a picture for connoisseurs who can take their time with a film that's genuinely funny and remarkably easy to watch.

Great For: genuine lovers of cinema, residences of Minnesota, McDormand's trophy shelf

Not So Great For: anyone under the age of 18, action junkies, date nights

What else should I watch?

The Coens have had an illustrious career since they first appeared with 1984's Blood Simple. Everyone will have their favourite but mine remains 1998's The Big Lebowski which forever linked Jeff Bridges with the role of The Dude and meant that you could never order a White Russian ever again. However, they did have a bit of a misfire on their hands when they attempted an ill-advised remake of the timeless Ealing comedy The Ladykillers in 2004. It's an OK picture but there's nothing wrong with the 1955 original which is a classic Ealing comedy with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.

But they came back with another trademark slice of noir with No Country For Old Men, a haunting western that sees Josh Brolin trying to keep one step ahead of Javier Bardem's mesmerising hitman. They remained out in the west for another remake of the John Wayne classic, True Grit, but they were a bit more successful this time, forging a film that not only allowed their talents to show us a western unlike any seen for a long time but also bolstered by quality performances from Bridges again and Hailee Steinfeld.

Main Cast

William H. Macy
Jerry Lundegaard
Frances McDormand
Marge Gunderson
Steve Buscemi
Carl Showalter
Peter Stormare
Gaear Grimsrud
Harve Presnell
Wade Gustafson
Kristin Rudrüd
Jean Lundegaard
Steve Reevis
Shep Proudfoot

Technical Info

Joel Coen
Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Running Time
98 minutes
Release Date (UK)
31st May, 1996
Comedy, Crime, Drama
Academy Awards
Best Leading Actress (McDormand), Best Original Screenplay
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Leading Actor (Macy), Best Director, Best Editing, Best Cinematography

© 2015 Benjamin Cox


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