Fargo (1996): Joel and Ethan Coen’s First Acknowledged Masterpiece, Starring Frances McDonald in Oscar-Winning Performance

Much less vain or flamboyant than their earlier pictures, and more firmly grounded in recognizable reality, Fargo is considered to be the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) most fully realized feature to date.

The movie arrived securely almost a decade after the Coens’ astonishing debut, the 1985 crime-noir, Blood Simple.

Thematically, Fargo bears the influence of philosopher-playwright Samuel Beckett in its minimalist, deadpan dialogue and deliberately repetitive sentences.

Stylistically, in its cool casualness, and minimalism, the movie recalls the singular sensibility of the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki.

Yet overall it’s very much a quintessential Coen brothers movie, one that combines whimsey and violence, laugh-loud humor and subtle observations on human nature, consummate but calculated technical skill and artfully showy camera.

The tale is cast with a group of brilliant indie actors, some little known to the more general public at the time.

But the film is dominated by Frances McDormand (Joel’s real-life wife) playing the lead, sort of a female Columbo, only more eccentric (and charming).

Read our review of the Coens’ Barton Fink:


Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), Fargo’s nominal (anti) hero, is a car salesman in desperate need for cash to finance a business deal. When all of his options fall through, he hires two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife for ransom; it’s the only way to pry money out of her stingy millionaire father.

Predictably, the scheme goes uproariously awry. They hit a bump when an investigating cop is killed (in cold blood), and things continue to go awry and get weirder and weirder.

Before long, in what is the movie’s most violent scene, a body is fed into a woodchipper.

The criminals are pursued by the small-town police chief, Marge Gunderson (McDormand), who unravels the scheme with both disastrous–and hilarious–results.

Much of Fargo‘s text consists of a sharp send-ups of its local denizens, with various gags about the endless snow, Paul Bunyan, and the dimwitted yokels.

A comic thriller with a deadpan tone, the film boasts the kind of humor that’s often targeted at the expense of its characters.  They stand in for the lower and middle class people of Minnesota and North Dakota–defined by their broad, flat accents and a mode of behavior, which often connote slowness, dimness, and even stupidity.

Instinctively attracted to the offbeat, the Coens begin by cautioning that Fargo is a true story; names have been changed “out of respect for the dead.”

The Coens have always treated some of their characters with contempt, by ruthlessly manipulating and loathing their foolishness. Their mean strategy might have been inspired by the unpleasant memories of their Midwestern childhood.

Yet for all its snideness, shocks and gross outs, deep-down the Coens, like David Lynch and John Waters, reveal themselves to be decent middle-class citizens with rather conventional bourgeois values of love, loyalty, and family.

One notch above a caricature, Marge is a woman who at first seems to be too “slow” and polite to a fault. Like her plodding Scandinavian fellows, she drawls out passionlessly lines like “Jeez, that’s a good lead, but I’m not sure that I agree with you one hundred percent on your police work there.”

At first, the audience laughs at Marge, but by the end, as she lies in bed with her husband (who paints stamps), we realize that this seemingly silly woman is the story’s only positive and genuinely human character, embodying honesty and decency. Her warm presence lights up the otherwise dark and ultra-violence picture.

She and the film reaffirm the sacred value of life, which is underscored by her pregnancy, perhaps compensating for the various deaths and executions along the way.

Ultimately, it’s Marge’s decency that rescues Fargo from deteriorating into a film that’s limited in scope–based on a one-note joke, though the joke is nasty a and good one.

Happy Ending?

The last scene is set inside the Gundersons household, suggesting some sort of stable domesticity and a return to “normalcy.”  Norm (John Carroll Lynch), Marge’s husband, whose mallard painting has been selected for a 3-cent postage stamp, complains that his friend’s painting will be on first-class stamp. Marge then reassures Norm that lots of people still use 3-cent stamps, particularly when the price of postage increases and they need to make up the difference.

The couple now happily anticipates the birth of their first child in two months.

Visually, Fargo is stunning, particularly in its exterior scenes. The opening scene with its blinding blizzard, showing a single car driving in a vast snowy landscape, is indelible.  This single shot demonstrates the consistently bleak yet strikingly beautiful imagery, courtesy of genius cinematographer and reliable Coens collaborator, Roger Deakins.

Fargo premiered in the U.S. on March 8, 1996, two months before being invited to play in competition at the 1996 Cannes Film Fest, where Joel Coen won the Palme d’Or for Best Director. 

The film was commercially profitable: Made at a budget of $7 million, it earned over $60 million at the box-office.


Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson
William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard
Steve Buscemi as Carl Showalter
Peter Stormare as Gaear Grimsrud
Harve Presnell as Wade Gustafson
Kristin Rudrüd as Jean Lundegaard
Tony Denman as Scotty Lundegaard
Steve Reevis as Shep Proudfoot
Larry Brandenburg as Stan Grossman
John Carroll Lynch as Norm Gunderson
Steve Park as Mike Yanagita
José Feliciano as himself (cameo)

Critical Reception:

Though highly acclaimed by most reviewers, two major critics stood out in their negative assessment.

Richard Corliss of “Time” magazine summed up his reaction in one witty sentence: “All attitude, and low aptitude.”

Dave Kehr was more specific in his “New York Daily Post” review: “Everything is calculated  to make the viewers superior to the claddish, geeky characters.”


Music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Edited by Roderick Jaynes
Production company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Working Title Films
Distributed by Gramercy Pictures
Release date: March 8, 1996
Running time: 98 minutes

Budget: $7 million
Box office $60.6 million