A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Fargo is a now-classic 1996 Coen Brothers movie in which a pregnant police chief tries to figure out who was behind a triple homicide that took place on a road outside of town and why. Like so many of the Coen Brothers' films, themes of greed, evil, and duplicity are shown through the local color exemplified in the culture and characters of the region the movie is set in. The comedy of "Minnesota nice" characters who are quick with a smile and a "Yah, you betcha" offsets the gruesome murders and the indelible image of a man trying to dispose of the body of the man he just murdered with an axe by shoving him through a wood chipper. Characters are shot and killed at close range, often in the head, bloody as they hit the ground. One of the characters is shot in the jaw and is shown bleeding and suffering as he tries to keep paper towels on his jaw to stop the bleeding. Frequent profanity, including regular use of "f--k" and its variations, including one use by a tween boy. Two of the antagonists have sex with prostitutes in their motel room. A woman is shown being kidnapped by two men who break into her home. The content overall makes this best for older teens and adults.
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What's the story?
Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard's (William H. Macy) life in FARGO is out of control. On the surface, he's a stoic North Dakotan. Inside, he's so desperate for money that he's arranged for lowlifes Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife for ransom, hoping to get the money from his wealthy but disapproving father-in-law. But everything goes wrong. Jerry can't reach Carl and Gaear when he wants to call off the kidnapping. Then a deal worth nearly $1 million falls through. A car loan company is snooping around the fraudulent papers he used to get $320,000. After the kidnapping, his gruff father-in-law wants to handle it himself. More importantly, his wife is terrorized, and Carl and Gaear, being basement-level criminals, manage to kill three people on their way out of town. When chief of police Marge Gunderson (Francis McDormand) gets the case, she unravels the scheme with kindness, pathos, and a ravenous appetite.
Is it any good?
Watching this film is like seeing a Joan Didion story come to life: The characters are well-fleshed-out, and their tragedy is clear from the beginning. The tone communicates a feeling of isolation as writers Joel and Ethan Coen build to their terrible conclusion. In other words, it's deliciously watchable and terribly violent (and definitely not for kids). The movie was nominated for and received several Academy Awards for a reason -- this is a well-told, well-paced, and well-acted thriller. Francis McDormand won the Oscar for her portrayal of the pregnant police chief. The film also introduced viewers to a funny and sad William H. Macy.
Fargo starts with a warning that the story, set in 1987 Fargo, North Dakota, is true: The survivors have asked that their names be changed but, "out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred." What unfolds is the kind of banal evil and commonplace crime that make it onto television daily on programs like American Justice. The difference here is in the masterful storytelling and excellent acting.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Coen Brothers movies. What are some of the distinctive aspects that make up Coen Brothers movies?
Movies like Fargo, Raising Arizona, and The Big Lebowski make full use of their settings, of the local region, culture, and color, to bring their stories to life, but also to bring humor to stories that explore the darker sides of human behavior. How has their use of place made their movies so memorable? What are some other examples of movies or TV shows that fully utilize a region's distinctive culture, attitudes, and accents?
While the movie's opening claims that the movie is based on true events, the credits say that it's a work of fiction. The Coen Brothers themselves have been vague on any specific similar incidents that mirror what happens in the movie. Was it misleading to have that caption at the beginning of the movie, or was it another way to give the movie a sense of "reality"?
- In theaters: January 1, 1996
- On DVD or streaming: September 30, 2003
- Cast: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy
- Director: Joel Coen
- Studio: MGM/UA
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 103 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: strong violence, language and sexuality.
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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