Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 masterpiece, Fargo, opens with a rather specific disclaimer: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” Yet, from that point on, the Coen brothers weave a tale so hilariously twisted that it seems far too absurd to be rooted in reality. So, was Fargo truly based on factual events, or were the Coens simply having a laugh at our expense?
Well, let’s make one thing clear from the outset: despite the Coens’ insistence, they most certainly were not faithfully recreating real-life events “exactly as they occurred.” Fargo’s narrative revolves around Jerry Lundegaard (played by William H. Macy), a financially-strapped Oldsmobile dealer who hires two bumbling criminals, Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd). Jerry’s scheme is to use the kidnapping as leverage to extort money from his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell), who happens to own the dealership where Jerry works.
Given that this is a Coen Brothers film, it should come as no surprise that the criminals’ incompetence leads to a series of increasingly chaotic events. Matters escalate dramatically when the sharp and very pregnant police detective Marge Gunderson (portrayed by Frances McDormand) begins working the case. After Gaear murders a state trooper, tensions rise between him and Carl, while Jerry grows increasingly desperate to retrieve his wife. It would all be deeply tragic if not for the Coens’ unique ability to find dark humor in the most bizarre and violent situations. Jerry’s extortion scheme implodes entirely, while Carl meets a gruesome end, famously involving a wood chipper.
This brings us back to the initial question: Is any of this actually based on a true story, as the film claims? For the most part, the answer is no.
In 2016, in commemoration of the film’s 20th anniversary, Ethan Coen revealed to HuffPost that the disclaimer was added to set a particular tone. He explained, “We wanted to make a movie in the genre of a true story movie… You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.” Essentially, the Coens aimed to imbue the film with the atmosphere of a gritty true-crime drama, even if the depicted events were entirely fictitious. However, the “true story” assertion isn’t entirely without merit, as the Coens did draw inspiration from a few real-life incidents when crafting the movie. The infamous wood chipper scene, for instance, was inspired by a murder case in Connecticut that took place about a decade before Fargo’s release. A man named Richard Crafts was arrested and found guilty of killing his wife and disposing of her body using a wood chipper. Joel Coen also noted that Macy’s character was loosely influenced by a real General Motors employee who attempted to defraud the company by tampering with the serial numbers of some of their vehicles, a scheme reminiscent of the one hinted at in the film regarding Jerry’s involvement before he ventured into the world of kidnapping.
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So, much like countless other filmmakers before them, the Coen Brothers plucked a few real-life nuggets to sprinkle into their otherwise fictional movie. Their claim that “all of it is true” is essentially a clever bit of stylistic trickery. Interestingly, this playful disclaimer lives on in Noah Hawley’s superb TV series Fargo, which drew inspiration from the original film and has enjoyed four seasons on FX (also available for streaming on Hulu).
The Fargo TV series boasts several clever nods to the Fargo movie, with one of the most notable being the reappearance of the briefcase filled with money buried in the snow by Buscemi’s character in the film. However, one of the most overt callbacks is that every episode of the TV series begins with the exact same snippet of text, declaring that what you’re about to witness is a “true story,” that “the names have been changed at the request of the survivors,” and that “out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it happened.” The only elements that change from season to season are the date and location listed, as Fargo the TV show is an anthology that shifts in time and place to narrate a fresh tale each season. Similar to the film, Hawley’s utilization of this disclaimer helps set the tone for each episode, but, also in keeping with the movie, it’s all just a clever ruse.