Joel and Ethan Coen‘s 1996 masterpiece Fargo opens with a very 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.” And from there the Coens spin a tale that seems too hilariously perverse to be true. So what’s the real story here? Was Fargo based on actual events? Or were the Coens just pulling our legs all along?
Well, one thing we can say for certain is that, despite what they want you to believe, the Coens were definitely not dramatizing any real-life event “exactly as it occurred.” Fargo tells the story of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a financially-strapped Oldsmobile dealer who hires two ne’er-do-wells, Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrüd). Jerry’s plan is to use the kidnapping to extort his father-in-law (Harve Presnell), who owns the dealership where Jerry works, for some much-needed cash.
Being that this is a Coen Brothers film, it’s easy to guess that the criminals end up not being very bright, and things quickly spiral out of control, especially once a savvy and very pregnant police detective by the name of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) starts working the case. After Gaear murders a state trooper, he starts butting heads with Carl, while Jerry grows more and more desperate to retrieve his wife. It would be tragic if the Coens weren’t so good at finding the dark humor in the most bizarre and violent of circumstances. Jerry’s extortion attempt ends up completely collapsing, while Carl finds himself on the wrong end of a wood-chipper in the film’s most gruesome (and probably most famous) scene.
Which all leads us back to the question: Is any of this a true story as the film claims? For the most part, the answer is no.
In 2016, in honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, Ethan Coen told HuffPost that the disclaimer was added to the film to set a specific tone. “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie,” he said. “You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.” In essence, the Coens wanted to the film to carry the feeling of being a sordid true-crime drama, even if the events being presented never actually happened. However, the “true story” claim isn’t entirely a full-on fib, as the Coens did cherry-pick a few details from real life to include in the movie. The wood-chipper bit was inspired by a real-life murder that occurred in Connecticut about a decade before Fargo was released. A man named Richard Crafts was arrested and found guilty of killing his wife and using a wood chipper to dispose of her body. And Joel Coen told HuffPost that Macy’s character was loosely inspired by a real General Motors employee who attempted to defraud the company by “gumming up” the serial numbers for some of their automobiles – a scam similar to the one the film hints Jerry is involved with before he moves onto kidnapping.
So, like many filmmakers before them, the Coen Brothers snatched a few real-life details to incorporate into their very fictional movie. The disclaimer claiming all of it is true is just a bit of stylistic sleight of hand. Which actually makes it great fun that the disclaimer continues to live in Noah Hawley‘s excellent TV series Fargo, which was inspired by the original film and has run for four seasons on FX. (It also streams on Hulu.)
Fargo the TV series has a number of sly connections to Fargo the movie. (The most notable being that the briefcase full of money that Buscemi’s character buries in the snow in the film ends up resurfacing in the show.) But one of the most obvious callbacks is that each episode of the series opens with the exact same bit of text proclaiming that what you’re about to see is a “true story,” “at the request of the survivors, the names have been changed,” and “out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” The only thing that changes from season to season is the date and location given, as Fargo the TV show is an anthology that jumps around time and place to tell a new story each season. As with the film, Hawley’s use of the disclaimer helps set the tone for each episode, but also like the movie, it’s really just a load of bunk.
KEEP READING: The ‘Fargo’ Cast and Creator on the Unpredictable Joys of Season 4
Hold on for dear life.
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