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Film / Fargo

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"And for what? For a little bit of money? There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."

Fargo is a critically acclaimed dark comedy/crime movie from 1996, written and directed by The Coen Brothers. It stars Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare. Taking place in the Upper Midwest circa 1987, the plot concerns Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), a bankrupt car salesman who stages the kidnapping of his wife in order to cheat a ransom out of her wealthy father. But then things go wrong.

Like many of the Coens' films, Fargo takes liberal inspiration from Film Noir, one of their favorite subjects, but rather than being a straight Genre Throwback (like Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing) or an Affectionate Parody (like The Big Lebowski and Hail, Caesar!), it's perhaps best described as a subversion of the genre. The story is a fairly straightforward tale of criminal intrigue and a dogged cop on a mission, but it derives much of its subtle Black Comedy from its setting, taking place in the famously friendly, folksy Upper Midwest. Likewise, Frances McDormand's character Officer Marge Gunderson is a famous subversion of the archetypal Hardboiled Detective, being a perfectly nice and well-adjusted police officer who spends most of the film galumphing around in a bulky parka while heavily pregnant.

McDormand won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Gunderson, while the Coens won for Best Original Screenplay. While accepting the award, McDormand (who has been married to Joel Coen since 1984) famously joked that her years of "sleeping with the director" had finally paid off.

The film is famous for having almost none of the plot take place in Fargo, North Dakota. It instead largely takes place in Brainerd, Minnesota, but apparently that wouldn't have made as good a title for the film. It also popularized (or demonized) the Minnesota accent, with its singsong Scandinavian influences and northern twang. Super.note 

It's also famous for the urban legend about a Japanese tourist freezing to death while searching for the treasure that Buscemi's character hides in the film. You betcha.note  It was enough to spawn a documentary about it — sadly more based on La Jetée than the Coen Brothers' film style — and a fictionalized account starring Rinko Kikuchi.

An aired-in-2003 (but filmed in 1997) television pilot starred Edie Falco as Marge, but despite its praise, it wasn't picked up. FX began airing an anthology series based on the film in 2014, with the Coens as executive producers.

This film contains examples of the following tropes, ja:

  • '80s Hair: The hookers Margie interviews, and Jean to a lesser degree.
  • Action Mom: Marge hasn't given birth yet, but given her Pregnant Badass status, not even giving birth will stop her being an Action Girl.
  • Acoustic License: Grimsrud fires a gun inside a car right beside his and Showalter's heads, and yet they don't seem to be deafened at all, and continue talking right afterward.
  • All for Nothing:
    • In the end, absolutely no one involved in the scheme profits. Jerry gets arrested after his wife dies from his plot going awry, Showalter is disfigured, axed, and stuffed into a woodchipper for his troubles, Proudfoot is implied to be dragged off to court, and Grimsrud is caught in the act and imprisoned.
    • It's implied that even if the kidnapping went off without a hitch and Jerry got his parking lot, the scam he ran on GMAC using fake loans would have eventually landed him in prison for fraud.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Jean Lundegaard doesn't survive her time with Grimsrud.
  • An Aesop:
    • If you have money problems, be honest about them to those around you, and don't pull a scam to solve them. If Jerry had been more forthright, he wouldn't have lost everything.
    • In-universe; Marge delivers one to Grimsrud, of all people, near the end of the film. It fits her dwindling (yet still prevalent) optimism rather nicely.
  • Anyone Can Die: And usually without warning.
  • As You Know: Showalter has Jerry explain the entire scheme to him, for clarity's sake.
  • Ax-Crazy: Gaear Grimsrud, quite literally at one point.
  • Babies Ever After: The last two lines of the film remind the audience that there's a new life coming.
    Norm: [putting his hand on Marge's belly] Two more months.
    Marge: [resting her hand on top of his] Two more months.
  • Badass Longcoat: Grimsrud has one.
  • Bad Liar: Jerry Lundegaard is terrible at making up excuses on the spot, and flees from Marge the second time she tries to question him.
  • Bat Deduction: Marge meeting with Mike Yanagita and being told that his sob story of his "wife" dying of cancer turned out to be a coverup for him stalking a woman he had a malignant crush on until she moved away makes her suspect that Jerry wasn't telling the truth about any missing cars from his dealership.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: In theaters, and on the original versions of the DVD, the movie was preceded by a statement that the story was true, with names changed to protect those still alive. Yet the typical "all names and events are fictitious" disclaimer appears in the end credits. When asked, the Coens stated this was a device to encourage people to suspend their disbelief. Apparently someone complained, because later pressings of the DVD are missing the pre-movie statement. Since the first bars of the opening theme played over the statement, it's replaced with a black screen during that time for those discs missing the statement. However, the Region 1 Blu-ray and the version shown on Netflix still maintains this statement, so Your DVD May Vary. The only things that may be based on reality would be Jerry using nonexistent dealership vehicles to scam loans from GMAC (as happened from 1980 to 1991) and the scene where Gaear is stuffing Carl's remains down the woodchipper. Such a method of disposing of a corpse had been done before, as Richard Crafts of Newtown, Connecticut was convicted in 1989 of murdering his wife on November 19, 1986 and disposing of her body with a woodchipper.
  • Bait-and-Switch: During the kidnapping Jeannie sets it up to look like she's escaped out the bathroom window. A few minutes later, we and the kidnappers realize she's actually hiding in the shower. This is actually a savvy move on her part, but then she muffs her attempt to run for it.
  • Berserk Button: Shep Proudfoot goes ballistic on Carl for getting him noticed by the law, since he's on early release for a violent crime.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones:
    • Gaear fucking Grimsrud.
    • Shep Proudfoot, too, who is only more talkative than Gaear on account of having a vocabulary of "Yes", "No", and Cluster F Bombs during beatings.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Beware the Minnesota Nice Ones. Marge especially, who proves to be a tenacious son-of-a-gun in tracking the murderers.
  • Big Eater: Marge seems to be almost obsessed with food, although she justifies it In-Universe by her pregnant status, a common variant of the Wacky Cravings. The only food she seems to NOT like is her husband's eggs!
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: The scene of Gaear murdering his partner is followed by Marge lecturing him, and after a brief scene of Jerry failing to escape justice, Marge and Norm celebrate her child's birth to come in two months.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The bad guys are either caught or dead, but they killed lots of people in the process, the money is most likely lost forever, Jerry's son now has no parents, and nobody really learns from their mistakes. However, Marge, her husband, and their future child supposedly live Happily Ever After.
  • Black-and-White Morality: Despite the very ambiguous tale, the motivations of the characters are pretty clear-cut throughout — Marge is a kindly, upbeat family woman, while Jerry is an idiot in over his head and the criminals he hires are scummy weasels. It's also the point; contrasting and juxtaposing the relative "innocence" of the locals with the nigh-sociopathic brutality of the career criminals — mostly for comedic effect.
  • Black Comedy: Ranging from the almost botched kidnapping more resembling a Looney Tunes short gone wrong, to Showalter's whining as he bleeds heavily from his cheek...
  • Book Ends: The plot begins and ends with someone running across snow and getting shot.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Grimsrud gives one to the state trooper, and the blood spills into Carl's lap.
  • Bribe Backfire: Showalter tries to bribe the state trooper who pulls them over, which only arouses his suspicion and leads to Grimsrud killing the trooper.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Carl is startled to find out that the briefcase he thought would contain $80,000 in ransom actually has $1,000,000.
  • Broken Record: To accentuate the simplicity of the characters, a lot of the dialogue is formed with this trope in mind.
  • The Cameo: Bruce Campbell as the man in the soap opera Grimsrud watches, although it was not recorded for the film; that's an actual regional soap that Bruce did indeed appear in.
  • Captain Obvious: "Oh for Pete's sake! He's fleeing the interview! He's fleeing the interview!"
  • Catchphrase:
    • "Aw, jeez."
    • "Real good then."
    • Gaear Grimsrud has "You know?"
  • Central Theme: Valuing material wealth too highly destroys people and those around them.
  • Clueless Deputy: Lou, from what we see of him. He thinks "DLR" was the license plate itself, and not shorthand for "dealer plates" (plates issued to car dealerships that are used when an unregistered car has to be driven off the lot for whatever reason).
  • Clueless Detective: Subverted with Marge Gunderson. She appears clueless at first, but turns out to be easily the most competent and intelligent character involved in the movie's plot.
    "Not sure I agree with ya 100 percent on your police-work there, Lou..."
  • Cluster F-Bomb:
    • Showalter, but he has good reason. He has one right before the parking garage shooting, thrown off his game by the appearance of Wade instead of Jerry.
    • Proudfoot about halfway through the movie, when giving Showalter A Taste of the Lash.
  • Coitus Interruptus: Showalter is getting it on with a prostitute, then Shep Proudfoot suddenly barges in, throws the woman out of the room, and starts beating the crap out of Showalter.
  • Coitus Uninterruptus: One of the most distressing examples you'll ever watch in a film — Showalter and Grimsrud suddenly humping two ugly prostitutes.
  • Control Freak: Wade. When dealing with kidnappers, he wants to somehow negotiate, and has to be told by Jerry and Wade's trusted partner that it isn't a "horse trade". To maintain some control of the situation, he unwisely tries to confront the kidnappers himself and brings a weapon, which leads to his deathnote .
  • Cop Killer: The first person killed in the whole film is the cop who pulls over Showalter and Grimsrud.
  • Credits Gag: Musician and Minnesotan Prince was credited as "Victim in Field". In reality, the victim was played by one of the film's sound guys. Promotional materials for the film were eager to mislead audiences into thinking that a famous person would make a cameo because the Coens' last film had nearly killed their career and they thought this one would flop.
  • Deadpan Snarker: She's extremely Minnesota Nice and indirect about it, but Marge has her moments. When she interrogates Shep Proudfoot about a mysterious phone call which he denies having made, she shoots holes through his story with a casual, folksy manner, almost as if she doesn't realize it. Then she points out that he could be considered an accomplice in the whole mess in an almost motherly fashion before returning to her normal, chirpy self and asking, "So do you think you might remember who called ya?"
  • Decoy Hiding Place: Jean Lundegaard nearly escapes from Showalter and Grimsrud this way. She runs into the bathroom, opens the window — then hides in the shower. Her pursuers both think she jumped out the window, but Grimsrud lingers in the bathroom to disinfect a cut on his hand, and finds Jean almost by accident.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Jerry. Marge is unquestionably the main character, but she doesn't show up until after the 30 minute mark.
  • Defective Detective: Set up, but then averted. Marge Gunderson is pregnant, so Minnesota Nice that she comes across as simple-minded, obviously is in over her head in terms of it being a murder and her being small-town police, and her family life is kind of boring (although we eventually find out that she is Happily Married regardless). It turns out that she is a very good detective, and is one of the few characters in the movie who is actually competent at their job.
  • Determinator: For a pregnant policewoman, Marge certainly does take a lot of risks, doggedly pursuing every option and never giving up the hope of finding another clue.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Essentially, the entire plot. Jerry's plan was that his wife would be kidnapped for a day or two, he would get the ransom, pay off his debts, and no one would be the wiser. The three dead bodies that kick off the plot, the murder of his wife and father-in-law, and the unraveling of his lies as well as his father-in-law refusing to play ball leads to one problem after another.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Jerry's entire plan. He hires two thugs whom he doesn't know and probably can't control, on the recommendation of a violent parolee, to kidnap his wife, and lies to them about the full amount of money being exchanged. He doesn't consider that the thugs might try to blackmail him for more money or that his stingy, bossy, and distrustful father-in-law might try to interfere rather than just hand over a million-dollar ransom (most of which Jerry was going to skim for himself before giving the rest to the kidnappers). He also never considers how his wife and son will take the whole ordeal. Even if his plan had been successful, the paper trail of the GMAC car loans would make no sense and indicate some sort of fraud on Jerry's part.
  • Dirty Coward: Jerry is too cowardly to admit that he's lost a bunch of money. Instead, he tries to steal money from his father-in-law to cover his debt by having his wife kidnapped for the ransom.
  • Disappointed by the Motive: Marge's "The Reason You Suck" Speech towards Gaear revolves around this: she just can't fathom how a person could cause so much death and destruction for a fairly paltry sum of cash and a GMC Ciera.
  • Dismembering the Body: Carl gets hacked to pieces by Gaear, who then feeds the body parts into a woodchipper.
  • Door Focus: The camera stays on the door when Marge leaves the house after breakfast. Naturally, she returns to ask her husband for a jump start. Watch it here.
  • Dramatic Sit-Down: Jerry sits down and stares off into space when he comes back from having seen Wade's corpse and the money missing.
  • Dumb Blonde: The sex workers Marge talks to. All any of them can say about Showalter and Grimsrud is that Showalter was "funny lookin'" and that Grimsrud was Swedish. And after some prodding, that Showalter was uncircumcised. One of them was Frances McDormand's accent coach for this movie. Think she did a pretty good job? Oh, yaaa. You betcha, yaaa.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Practically everything that Grimsrud does. It's as if nothing can shock him. Averted when he's watching a soap opera on TV. When one of the characters dramatically (and acting rather badly) proclaims that she's pregnant with the other character's baby, he drops his fork in shock, but when Showalter comes crashing in through the door bleeding from a gunshot wound to his mouth, he's completely unfazed.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Jean's father adamantly refuses to hand over the money if he doesn't get his daughter back first; he gets shot in the stomach for trying to be a hero, but before dying, manages to shoot Carl in the face.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • After examining the dead state trooper, Marge comments that "...he looks like a nice enough's a real shame!" — showing her tendency to see people as essentially good right off the bat.
    • When Marge tells her deputy that she "doesn't 100% agree" with his detective work (regarding the dealer plates), she does it in the nicest way possible so he doesn't feel inadequate, then immediately cracks a joke to make him laugh. It tells you all you need to know about Marge being both nice and clever.
    • Jerry's first scene includes a number of tells about his personality. He not only lies about being told the wrong time to meet the kidnappers to cover up being late, but he also blames someone else for it. Jerry refuses to take responsibility and blames others for his own failings. His big establishing scene, however, is when Jerry passive-aggressively strongarms a couple into buying a coat of protective paint they didn't want on their car. He's a weaselly cheat and liar who no one likes.
      • This even extends to his employee of the month picture; his is the only one that doesn't look like a dignified portrait, with his arms crossed in his lap and a big plastic smile on his face, displaying that he thinks he's more important than he actually is.
    • Carl does most of the talking in the first scene, interrupting Jerry, repeating the one thing his partner says, and suggesting an easier alternative to Jerry's plan after demanding every minute detail of it. He's a Control Freak.
    • Gaear says nothing during the first scene apart from a single disgusted remark suggesting that Jerry could ask his wife for the money instead of kidnapping her for a ransom. He's full of contempt for other people.
    • After Grimsrud and Showalter have animated sex with two prostitutes in a hotel room, the four boredly watch The Tonight Show afterward. After a quick cut following the sex, they are sitting up in bed in their icy blue-tinged room. They are catatonic— watching the Tonight Show (from Hollywood) on TV, like the rest of those living a bland existence in Middle America.
    • Wade gets one, too. He's sitting in Jerry's home, watching the main TV, but doesn't even greet Jerry when he gets home or ask if Jerry's OK with what's on the television, then sharply questions Jerry and Jean's parenting later that evening. Later, he and Stan talk about cutting Jerry out of the $750,000 deal that Jerry devised — in front of Jerry. In short, his character's already established as a Jerkass.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: When speaking to an old high school friend about Mike Yanagita, Marge suddenly understands Jerry's motives. You can almost see the light bulb turn on.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: A non-supernatural example. Jerry thinks he can enrich himself with no real harm to his family by having two out-of-town thugs kidnap his wife and that they'll do what he wants them to. But the nominally smarter criminal can't even control the violent impulses of the other one, so a jellyfish like Jerry has no hope at all. And he failed to think even the "good" part of the equation through — how his father-in-law and especially his son would react.
  • Extreme Mêlée Revenge: Shep Proudfoot to Carl Showalter. After finding out Carl and Gaear’s shenanigans have jeopardized his parole, Shep repeatedly tosses Carl across the room, repeatedly kicks him, briefly strangles him with a telephone cable, and then uses said cable to whip Carl hard enough to leave bloody gashes. Needless to say, Carl deserves every bit of it and more.
  • Fatal Flaw: Greed is a common one, while Gaear's is probably trigger-happiness (Wrath) and Wade's is control freakery (Pride).
  • "Fawlty Towers" Plot: Deconstructed. Jerry heaps so many falsehoods together, and involves so many people in his scheme, it's actually surprising he manages to keep it going as long as he did. However, true to the trope, it all spirals wildly out of control, and by the time the body count starts coming into play, Jerry knows he's done for.
  • Foil:
    • Mike for Jerry. Mike and Jerry are both pathetic, passive-aggressive liars who will stoop to quite a few lows to get what they want. Mike's lying nature is what leads Marge to reconsider Jerry's story.
    • Marge's family to Jerry's family. One is supportive. The other... not so supportive.
  • For Want Of A Nail: If only Showalter hadn't forgotten to put those temporary tags on the car.
  • From Bad to Worse: A money-making scheme gone wrong ends with, among other things, a guy getting fed into a woodchipper.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: The Lundegaards have an issue of Playboy in their bathroom magazine rack.
  • Genre-Busting: Neo-noir/thriller/black comedy, and that's just to start.
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: Marge, as seen in the page quote.
  • Good Guns, Bad Guns: Of the "revolvers=good, automatic=bad" type. The All-Loving Hero cop Marge Gunderson uses a Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver, as do all the other minor cops shown in the film. The immoral and psychopathic Showalter and Grimsrud share a SIG-Sauer P226 semi-automatic pistol between them.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: Marge Gunderson is the good, as she's an All-Loving Hero who can't understand how some people can be so cruel. Jerry Lundegaarde is the bad, as he is an immoral businessman who's willing to put his wife in danger to cover up his own incompetence. Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are the evil, for being the ones to commit the crime and kill quite a few people over the course of the film (even more so in Grimsrud's case).
  • Gorn: Just look at how bloody the snow is as Grimsrud feeds Showalter through the woodchipper. Also the amount of blood that comes out of the head of the state trooper when Gaear shoots him. There is also Showalter's bleeding from the bullet wound in his jaw, and his horrendously inept attempts to patch up the wound.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: A theme throughout the movie. The Minnesota Nice populace tend to mince their oaths.
  • Greed: Almost everyone. The original deal the criminals made — which is enough for them to start killing people like it's going out of style — is for a mere $40,000 cash and an ugly brown Oldsmobile Ciera, which is not a lot in the long run. Showalter later argues with his partner over a couple of hundred bucks when he's already stolen a million, and it gets him an axe to the head. Even Wade haggles over the price on his daughter's head. Lampshaded by the pig figurines all over the Lundegaards' house.
    Stan: We're not horse-trading here, Wade.
  • Hanlon's Razor: All of the murder and mayhem that occurs in this film happens because the crooks are as vile as they are inept.
  • Happily Ever After: The final shot involves Marge and Norm happily sitting in bed with the baby on the way. They even say they're "doing pretty good." There are no conflicts for these characters, and no implications of problems in the future.
  • Happily Married: Marge and Norm "Son-of-a" Gunderson. They live a fairly boring, unglamorous life of suburban routine, but they most certainly love each other.
  • Hidden Depths: Jerry is defined by his callous stupidity. However, he does manage to come up with a decent proposal for a real estate deal that impresses his usually mean-spirited father-in-law and his business partner. Unfortunately, he didn't anticipate them choosing to go about the deal themselves while offering Jerry a small finder's fee. The implication is that Jerry could be successful if he bothered to put more thought and work into his actions.
  • Historical In-Joke: When the stamp prices were increased in 1995 (a year before the film's release) from 29 to 32 cents, there was a heavy demand for 3-cent stamps.
  • Hollywood Cop Uniform: Taken up to eleven; the sheriff-like uniforms worn by Marge and her subordinates, with their seven-pointed stars and brown and tan coloring, are nothing like that of the real police of Brainerd, Minnesota, which are standard blue with an oval shield-shaped badge (however, the state trooper's uniform is more accurate). This seems to have been done deliberately to underscore the small-town nature of the characters.
  • Hollywood Law: Since it involved the death of a state trooper, the Minnesota State Police should have been investigating the murders.note 
  • Homage Shot: The scene where Carl buries the Briefcase Full of Money beside the road is a homage to a similar scene in the 1960 British film The Criminal where Johnny Bannion buries a suitcase full of stolen cash in an empty field.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: The two blonde sex workers aren't terribly bright, but they do come across as very friendly and rather sweet-natured.
  • I Have Your Wife: Invoked. Jerry planned the kidnapping to gain ransom money from her rich father.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Jerry Lundegaard has his wife kidnapped as a means to pay off a debt using the ransom. The plan unravels almost instantly, as the kidnappers aren't as competent or as sane as previously thought and his web of lies easily unravels, such as his inability to explain how the car he used to pay them disappeared from his lot. It's obvious he isn't very smart and probably had good intentions, making him more sympathetic than a villain who was selfish and manipulative.
  • In Medias Res: A variation. The movie opens with Jerry bringing the tan Ciera to Fargo, North Dakota, which sets off the chain of events we see in the movie. Why exactly he is resorting to the measures he's currently taking is never spoken of and we never find out just what kind of trouble he was in before his trip to Fargo. The two conversations he has on the phone with GMAC regarding the car serial numbers implies he's been defrauding them for $320,000, though what exactly he needed the money for in the first place is never revealed.
  • Instant Death Bullet: The trooper, who gets shot in the top of the head.
  • It Gets Easier: Carl reacts with a resounding and shocked "Oh, daddy!" to the first murder. He gets more and more angry and psychopathic as the film goes on until he's casually murdering people, too.
  • Jerkass:
    • Wade Gustafson. He even rubs it in Jerry's face that his wife and son won't have to worry about their future. Not Jerry.
    • Jerry. Throughout the movie, he's rude and condescending towards everybody except for maybe his son (even though he's hardly somebody who can back up his own arrogance). Plus, he never stopped to consider what effect his wife's kidnapping would have on their son (or his wife herself, for that matter, who is understandably terrified). And while he's taken aback to learn his plan has resulted in three murders, he shows no remorse and goes ahead as planned.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: While he is an asshole, particularly to Jerry, Wade is right to doubt Jerry's reliability, given his obvious lack of business sense. It is also perfectly sensible to not want to lend Jerry $750,000 of his own money to risk in a real estate deal where Jerry would keep most of the profits if it paid off.
  • Karmic Death: Wade isn't one of the villains, but he is such a colossal asshole that his death comes as a great satisfaction.
    • Carl is such a repulsive character that many viewers find his axing death and disposal by woodchipper at the hands of his even more sociopathic partner funny and somewhat satisfying.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: At one point while threatening Jerry over the phone, Carl says "30 minutes, and we'll wrap this thing up." He says this when there are thirty minutes left in the movie's runtime.
  • Leave No Witnesses:
    • After Grimsrud shoots the trooper, he tells the dumbstruck Showalter to drag the body off the road. Unfortunately, while Showalter is doing that, a car comes up from the other direction and slows down, the motorists having obviously noticed the dead cop's body. Grimsrud puts the Ciera in drive and chases down the two motorists, who overturn some way down the road. When he gets there, the driver starts to flee but is shot in the back by Grimsrud, who then steps up to the car and shoots the female passenger.
    • Carl murders the parking attendant (off-screen) after killing Wade in the parking garage.
  • MacGuffin: The briefcase full of money that's buried and never seen again, although it does show up in the show.
  • Minnesota Nice: Probably the definitive film example. Almost every character is always smiling and helpful. On top of that, they have thick Northern accents that leave no question in the audience’s minds where they are from. Some deride this movie for the stereotype, while others embrace it.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Defied by Grimsrud. After pulling Carl and Grimsrud over for failing to display a license tag, a state trooper begins to hear Jean's muffled screaming from the back of the car. Grimsrud promptly grabs the officers head and shoots him at point blank range.
  • Mood Whiplash: The movie turns on a dime between small-town quirkiness that's played for laughs and coldly brutal violence that decidedly isn't — and even then, it's a comical amount of blood with film-isms thrown in. Just watch this scene. (Warning for mild spoilers). The trailer reflects this, as the first half is light-hearted and quirky, while the second half turns dramatic, before veering back into comedic in the last few seconds.
  • Motor Mouth: Carl Showalter. "I don't have to talk, either, man! See how you like it. Just total fuckin' silence. Two can play at that game, smart guy. We'll just see how you like it. Total silence." This led to an in-joke, with Steve Buscemi constantly being told to shut up in his later film with the Coens, The Big Lebowski.
  • Nice Girl: Marge is friendly, kind, and respectful to everyone she comes across. In a twist, her easy manner just makes her more awesome and helps her a lot when investigating. Many police investigators in real life use the same tactic to get people to open up to them. It's not only her attitude towards interviewees and suspects. She tells a police officer his blunder of thinking "DLR" was the first part of a license number (when officers use that to indicate dealer plates), but does it in the nicest way possible, then cracks a joke to make him laugh and relax. The only time this veneer gets close to shattering is when she meets with an old classmate who unsubtly hits on her and is obviously trying to get a date with her — knowing she's married — and even when he puts her arms around her and she tells him off (gently), she apologizes.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: Wade tells Jerry that Jean and Scotty never have to worry about their financial future, ominously leaving Jerry out of that equation.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The state trooper gets killed because he refuses to take Showalter's bribe.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: One is given to Showalter by Shep Proudfoot after Marge interviews him about phone calls made from a hotel the perpetrators stayed at. Since Shep doesn't want to go back to Stillwater Prison, it's obvious he has motives.
  • The Nondescript: Grimsrud and especially Showalter seem to be rather featureless to the people of Minnesota (except that one is tall and the other is "small and funny-lookin', in a general kind of way"), even though Stormare and Buscemi are anything but nondescript.
  • Non-Indicative Name: There is a grand total of one scene set in Fargo — and that's the beginning. Most of the action takes place in between the town of Brainerd, Minnesota, which is over 150 miles east of Fargo, and the Twin Cities, about the same distance east of Brainerd.
  • Noodle Incident: The $325,000 GMAC loan for which Jerry forged the VIN numbers of nonexistent cars. The viewer never finds out for what purpose Jerry got the money, or how he (presumably) lost it. Arguably, Jerry likely intended that part of the ransom money would be used to pay back the loan and get the persistent Reilly Diefenbach off his neck.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: "I'd be very surprised if our suspect was from Brainerd." Well, the suspects are from out of town and are staying at a cabin nearby.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Grimsrud's reaction to Marge catching him in the process of "destroying evidence" in the woodchipper.
    • Showalter finally realizing Grimsrud is about to chop him.
    • Showalter and Grimsrud being stopped by the state trooper, and Showalter most likely about to be arrested.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Wade is a textbook example. He refuses to lend his son-in-law any money at all (even backhandedly mocking him for it), and screws him over on an investment. His insistence in handling the money drop-off because he doesn't trust Jerry ends with his death (and the death of a parking attendant because he sees Showalter when he is making his getaway) and Showalter being injured.
  • Only Sane Man: Marge is a classic example, as she's easily the nicest and most level-headed character in the whole film.
  • Outside-Context Problem: The villains are violent criminals who will go to desperate means for some money... They could not be more out-of-place in the sweet, small-town Upper Midwest. The antagonist who hires them is miles out of his depth. This contrast is very much a deliberate choice.
  • Papa Wolf: Wade. Deconstructed Trope, however, in that his insistence in wanting to handle his daughter's kidnapping is tainted with his hatred of Jerry (who insists that the kidnappers wanted him to be the one giving the money, and even if he wasn't the mastermind of the situation it could still have created a problem with the kidnappers), and thus exacerbates the problem, leading to his death.
  • Parking Garage: Where Gustafson goes to drop off the ransom money. It doesn't end well for him, the parking attendant, or for Showalter's right cheek.
  • Phrase Catcher: Carl Showalter is remembered by witnesses like this: "Oh, he was a little guy... Kinda funny lookin'."
  • Plethora of Mistakes: Jerry's plan falls apart almost before it starts. A lot of it has to do with the two criminals he hired screwing up due to their violent nature, which gets the attention of the police (precisely the thing they were trying to avoid).
  • Pregnant Badass: Marge might be the foremost example in cinema. She is seven months pregnant. Her badassery (though bordering on stupidity), is shown in the climax when she spots the brown Ciera and goes after it. One heavily pregnant policewoman against two extremely violent criminals (she's lucky that one of them had already killed the other, and was unarmed and distracted disposing of the body when she finds him).
    [Marge bends over while looking at the woman shot in the car]
    Lou: You see somethin', Marge?
    Marge: No, I think I'm gonna barf!
  • Precision F-Strike: When Jerry must deal with an angry customer who is furious at having protective paint on his car applied despite Jerry's promise not to do so, he curses, "You lied to me, Mr. Lundegaard. You're a bald-faced liar, a... a fucking liar!" Jerry's customer (and his wife) is visibly shocked at himself, and Jerry literally hangs his head in shame. Averted by Carl, who swears all the time.
  • Pride: Perhaps the driving force behind everything a certain Mr. Lundegaard does. His father-in-law, a certain Mr. Gustafson, is similar.
  • Psycho for Hire: Gaear Grimsrud and his slightly less fuckin' crazy "buddy", Showalter.
  • The Quiet One: Grimsrud, though for good reason. To the point that when Peter Stormare first saw the script he almost couldn't find his part! Shep also counts, responding in a similar manner as Grimsrud to Marge's questions, except for when he's beating Showalter for blowing his involvement.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech. From Marge to Grimsrud.
    Marge: So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it.
  • Ransom Drop: The ransom is supposed to be delivered by the kidnapped woman's husband who ordered the kidnapping in the first place. He will pocket his share of the money and deliver the rest to his partners. However, in the last moment the woman's father decides to deliver the money himself and refuses to hand it over until he sees that his daughter is alive. The kidnapper shoots him dead.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Jerry, after his plan to raise money to pay for the loans is subverted by Wade and Stan, is shot in an extreme long shot of just him and his car, surrounded by snow, as he angrily chips the ice from his windshield — emphasizing his isolation, ineffectiveness, and powerlessness.
  • Rule of Drama: Why does Marge drive to the middle of nowhere to confront Grimsrud, alone, instead of calling for backup? It's more thrilling that waynote .
  • Rule of Three: A minor example: twice Marge has a small slip on ice, but catches herself. When she encounters Grimsrud on the lake, she very carefully sets her feet down, to prevent herself from slipping.
  • Scenery Porn: You'd be surprised how beautiful a frozen wasteland can be.
  • Sex in a Shared Room: A variation — Carl and Grimsrud both have sex with prostitutes in different beds in the same room. Afterwards, all four watch TV.
  • Sherlock Scan: Arriving at a few-hours-old crime scene, Marge deduces exactly what happened with a quick survey of the area, then figures out that the perp's car had dealer plates from the dead state trooper's memo.
  • Shout-Out: To Blood Simple, also directed by the Coen brothers:
    • Showalter getting spotted by a couple of motorists while dragging the trooper's body parallels the scene where Marty drags a barely alive Ray while a truck comes in their direction. Sadly for Showalter (and them), the motorists can't mistake the trooper for drunk like the trucker does for Ray.
    • Jean hiding in the bathroom to escape her pursuers is an inversion of what Abby does in her own scene: while Showalter assumes Jean escaped through the window when she was hiding behind the shower curtain, Visser checks the shower first before figuring out that Abby went through the window.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: For Jerry, at least. His attempt at trying to fund his business deal results in his wife being murdered, his wife's father being murdered, and him in jail — and before that, the business deal was going to fail anyway, and if it hadn't, he'd have been sued for another bad loan. And if the deal had gone through, Showalter would have buried the rest of the money instead of splitting it.
  • A Simple Plan: The plan was simple, sort of: Jerry hires Showalter and Grimsrud to kidnap Jean and extort money from her father Wade so he can pay back a looming debt, paying them in advance with a car from his lot and promising them $40,000 of the $80,000 he claims he'll ask for. But the kidnappers get pulled over for lack of vehicle tags on the new car, causing them to kill the cop and two witnesses. This prompts a police investigation that gradually unravels the scheme. Meanwhile, Jerry tells Wade that the ransom is $1 million. Wade balks at the amount and insists on dealing with the kidnappers personally, which Jerry can't allow because he wouldn't get his cut. It all ends in disaster.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Carl Showalter usually can't utter a sentence without putting a curse word in it.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: For a Coen Brothers film that contains a lot of Black Comedy as well as a lot of amoral characters, it actually leans more towards the middle of the scale than far down cynical.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Jean Lundegaard. She's only on screen for a few minutes, but all the events of the movie stem from her husband's botched plan to have her kidnapped and ransomed.
  • Smarter Than You Look:
    • Marge may come across as a dumb country hick, but she's a very gifted detective and easily the smartest character in the movie.
    • To a lesser extent, Jean. Her attempt to escape the two kidnappers by hiding in the shower next to the open window is surprisingly clever and almost fools them. Almost.
  • Snow Means Death: Occasionally, said snow is covered in blood. Look at the snow while Grimsrud is feeding Carl through the woodchipper.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Mike Yanagita stalked a girl so much she had to move away, and he invented a story that he married her and she died — and uses that lie to try and get with a pregnant, married police officer, blatantly hitting on her because he needs a new "object of affection".
  • The Stoic: Grimsrud, to the point of being The Soulless. He rarely speaks and doesn't react when shocking and violent things happen around him, even his partner storming through the front door with a bullet wound. Even when he kills, there is no rage behind his eyes. He likely feels no emotion at all, making him even more frightening.
    • Marge. For example, she shows no outward emotion about the murdered state trooper, saying neutrally, "He looks like a nice enough guy. It's a real shame."
  • Stupid Crooks: Jerry's scheme to stage his wife's kidnapping in order to swindle money from his wealthy father-in-law goes horribly awry once the two criminals he hired for the job are pulled over by a state trooper shortly after the kidnapping, because one of them forgot to replace the dealer plates with license plates. They make things worse by unsuccessfully trying to bribe the trooper, and end up killing him along with two witnesses, which only complicates things and calls more attention to their actions. Then more things happen that don't go according to plan, and more people die as a consequence of this, including Jerry's wife, which also leads us to...
  • Stupid Evil: Both kidnappers, but especially Showalter:
    • He sets off the entire Plethora of Mistakes by not putting the correct tags on the car.
    • Instead of staying hidden while waiting for the ransom, he goes to a local bar (offscreen) and tells the bartender that he's staying "out by the lake," then needlessly intimidates him, bragging that he (Showalter) has recently murdered someone. The bartender tells the police about their encounter: Showalter's mentioning his temporary home means the police know approximately where to look for him.
    • And completing his Trilogy of Idiocy, he antagonizes Grimsrud over a few thousand dollars when leaving quietly would have landed him almost a million, leading directly to his death at Grimsrud's axe.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: The movie is basically a deconstruction of what you'll find in a crime-thriller.
    • After kidnapping Jean, Showalter and Grimsrud get pulled over by a state trooper because the car Jerry gave them doesn't have temporary tags. Showalter's first instinct is to try and bribe the trooper, who's not having it and tells Showalter to get out of the car. It isn't impossible for police officers to be corrupt in real life, but the vast majority of them aren't going to look the other way no matter how much money you offer them. You wave a few hundred dollars in a cop's face, and nine times out of ten, you're just giving them a reason to arrest you.
    • Several example happen after Grimsrud shoots the trooper.
      • Carl, despite being an amoral crook, is still rather shell-shocked by having a man murdered right in front of him, so close he gets splattered with blood. It takes Grimsrud telling him to hide the body to even register what just happened.
      • Afterwards, the short and scrawny Carl tries to drag the taller and heavier corpse on his own, to predictably slow results. It takes so long they get spotted by a passing car.
      • Grimsrud gives chase, but instead of a drawn-out car chase like the movies, the other car veers off the road and flips over. Turns out driving at full speed down an icy road in the middle of the night, without even traffic lights, is an accident in the making. Even without the driver probably being in a blind panic.
    • Wade tries to be a Papa Wolf, ignoring Jerry (who says that the kidnappers gave specific instructions about him being the one who made contact and delivered the money) and charges off to the drop-off himself with a concealed pistol. His Clint Eastwood act when confronting Showalter is completely ineffective, resulting in the latter shooting and killing him out of sheer exasperation, and exacerbates the danger to his daughter's life even further.
    • Disposing of a dead body via woodchipper isn't anywhere near as good an idea as it may sound. Not only does it take a long time, even without the woodchipper possibly jamming, it leaves a massive pool of blood that can't be cleaned and creates so much noise that Marge gets the drop on Grimsrud and yells at him from only a few feet away without him noticing.
    • As Jerry finds out, being The Chessmaster is far easier in books and movies than in Real Life. Everything he plans winds up backfiring because of things he either didn't think through or had no control over, and it ends with his wife, father-in-law, and several innocent people all dead, him arrested while trying to flee, and his son now effectively orphaned.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: The best description people can come up with for Showalter is that he's "kinda funny-looking" — no mention of hair/eye color, height or anything. Grimsrud gets even less.
    Hooker: Oh, he wasn't circumcised.
    Marge: [frozen smile] Was he funny-lookin' apart from that?
  • Suspicious Ski Mask: Gaer Grimsrud and Carl Showalter wear these as they kidnap Jerry Lundergard's wife, Jean, in a scheme cooked up by Jerry to scam his father in law for the ransom money. Humorously, the kidnapping sequence begins with Carl walking up to the glass door of the Lundergard home while Jean is watching television and does nothing but stare at him with a confused glare as he peers in.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Showalter shoots Wade just once, through the chest, out of spite when Wade insists on seeing Jean. After Showalter gets shot in the cheek, he shoots Wade a few more times.
  • These Gloves Are Made for Killin': Downplayed. After Gaear Grimsrud murders the state trooper by shooting him in the head. He instructs Carl to drag him off the road. Gaear does not wear gloves during this, but Carl puts some on before moving the body.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Showalter. He knows Grimsrud is an Ax-Crazy psycho who has murdered four people over the past few days, but still stupidly picks a fight with him over the car and refuses to pay him a few hundred dollars for it, even though he had $920,000 hidden somewhere that Grimsrud knew nothing about. He pays dearly for that mistake.
    • Wade ignores the kidnappers' instructions that Jerry should deliver the ransom and brashly heads off to the ransom drop alone. He then argues with Showalter and refuses to hand over the money until he sees Jean. It doesn't end well for him.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Grimsrud is fond of flapjacks.
  • Trick Dialogue: Wade and Jerry, practicing their speeches.
  • Trivial Title: Only one scene (the opening scene in which Jerry meets Showalter and Grimsrud) takes place in Fargo. The rest takes place in the next state over, Minnesota, between the town of Brainerd and the Twin Cities. The film only ever returns to North Dakota once, in a brief scene near the end, and even then it's in Bismarck.
  • The Unfettered: Grimsrud. He has no reaction when they get the attention of a state trooper or when Showalter gets shot.
  • Verbal Tic:
    • Minnesotans pepper their statements with "Ah, geez," "ya", and "don'tcha know."
    • The Swedish Grimsrud is unable to grasp the phrase "pancake house", referring to it as a "pancakes house". Peter Stormare thought that that was a typo and said the line as, "Where is the pancake house?" He was astonished when the Coens told him that he was supposed to say, "Where is pancakes house?" note 
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The whole movie makes fun of this, as the opening says it's based on a true story, but Word of God says this was just a joke.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Jerry has several minor breakdowns over the course of the movie, culminating in the final one when he's finally tracked down and arrested in Bismarck, making pathetic baby-man squealing noises as he tries to escape from the troopers. It demonstrates what an ultimately pathetic and inadequate man he is, and how far out of his depth he's gotten himself.
  • Visual Pun: Filmsite notes that Grimsrud kills Carl "like the proverbial Paul Bunyan", whose statue has appeared cryptically in several shots. Grimsrud even wears the same facial hair.
  • Vomiting Cop: Subverted. When Marge inspects the overturned car with the dead woman inside, she squats, about to vomit... from morning sickness. It passes quickly.
  • Wacky Cravings: Averted. Marge eats pretty normal food (and fast food on top of it). She just eats a lot of it.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Marge's "all for a little bit of money" speech also covers this trope.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: Avoided, with GMAC and Oldsmobile featured prominently.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • After all this drama over "a little bit of money," a big chunk of the money itself ($920,000) is never recovered. The only person who knows where it's hidden is dead. In the first season of the TV series, it is established that a Greek immigrant named Stavros Milos found the money days after it was buried and parlayed it into a chain of grocery stores called Phoenix Farms.
    • The eventual fate of Jerry and Jean's son, Scotty, is never revealed, though presumably, having lost his mother and grandfather to criminals and his father to prison, he would be taken into care. Wade earlier said that Scotty and his mother will be OK (pointedly not including Jerry), which suggests that he has a will that would give her and Scotty his money in the event of his death. Scotty will have a tough time emotionally and personally, but at least he'll most likely be perfectly fine financially.
  • Wood Chipper of Doom: Perhaps the most infamous usage of this trope, where psychopathic criminal Gaear Grimsrud murders Carl Showalter with an ax, chops the body up into little pieces, then shoves the pieces into a ridiculously small wood chipper, which has jammed by the time Marge Gunderson arrives to the scene, horrified by Grimsrud's actions.
  • Worldbuilding: The Coen Brothers manage to make every character and place real. As noted by Roger Ebert:
    Ebert: Kristin Rudrud has few scenes as Jerry's wife, but creates a character out of them, always chopping or stirring something furiously in the kitchen. Their teenage son, who excuses himself from the table to go to McDonald's, helps establish the film's milieu with a bedroom that has a poster on its wall for the Accordion King.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Jerry isn't very good at it, but that doesn't stop him from giving it the old college try.



Video Example(s):


That Trucoat

Jerry keeps trying to sell an uninterested couple some sealant on a car.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / HonestJohnsDealership

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