What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Story Time With J-Dub is part of a relatively new series, and one of only a few to be done as part of a movie event. This distinction of being the first went to the Celluloid Road Trip Blog-A-Thon which was hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood. Essentially, it was about creating an imaginary road trip by sharing articles about films set anywhere within the United States.
When I discovered that blog-a-thon, I noticed the header had a list of states which linked to various movie-related topic for each. I also noticed that the state in which I spent a chunk of my childhood and in which I attended college was not among them.
Flash the clock forward a few years to when I discovered the Seen On The Screen Blog-A-Thon being hosted by Taking Up Room. That’s when I realized I had another chance to tell a story centered on a very under-rated (and one of my favorite) places…the “Peace Garden State,” North Dakota.
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here.
First of all, please don’t confuse this movie with the 1952 “B” western of the same name…if for no other reason than this one is inspired by a true story, although the names have been changed blah, blah, blah…Yeah, I know that means the opening frame is so much twaddle, but it’s a movie…not a documentary.
In any event, Fargo takes place in 1987 and centers on the exploits of not-so-lovable loser Jerry Lundegaard (played by William H. Macy). Jerry has married into a good job; he’s the executive sales manager of a Minneapolis automobile dealership which happens to be owned by owned by his father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (played by Harve Presnell). However, two themes become apparent early in the film. For reasons which are never really explored, Jerry is strapped for cash. His need for money is complicated by the second theme; the wealthy Wade Gustafson has little more than disdain for Jerry; he tolerates him because he is his son-in-law and father of his grandson Scotty (played by Tony Denman).
In another plot point which isn’t really developed, somehow Jerry approaches dealership mechanic and ex-con Shep Proudfoot (played by Steven Reevis). Jerry travels to Fargo, North Dakota for a meeting brokered by Proudfoot with two low-rent thugs Carl Showalter (played by Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (played by Peter Stormare).
During this meeting, Showalter and Grimsrud agree to a plot in which they will kidnap Lundegaard’s wife Jean (played by Kristin Rudrud). The deal is Lundegaard gives Showalter and Grimsrud a “down payment” on the kidnapping in the form fo a new car (ostensibly stolen from the dealership), with the reminder of the pay-off to be a split of the $80,000 ransom Lundegaard intends to get out of his father-in-law.
Then, we get our first big-time plot twist. Jerry ends up under the impression that Wade is going to lend him $750,000 to finance a deal to buy a “parking structure.” Since three-quarters of a million seemingly would take care of Jerry’s money woes, he tries to cancel his wife’s kidnapping. As usual, he fails…but doesn’t know it yet.
Next, Jerry has a meeting with Wade and his accountant/deal-killer Stan Grossman (played by Larry Brandenburg) where he believes the deal on the parking structure is going to be consummated. Instead, they tell him they intend to move on the deal without him, but they will pay Jerry a 10% “finder’s fee.” Knowing that’s nowhere near what he needs, Jerry’s frustration and desperation are causing him to begin unraveling.
It’s when Jerry returns home when he realizes his problems have grown by orders of magnitude; it becomes clear his message to cancel the kidnapping was not received. The house has obviously become a crime scene and Jean Lundegaard is tied up in the back seat of the car her husband gave to the kidnappers as they head to their clandestine lake cabin hideaway.
Along the way, the stakes of the game escalate astronomically as Showalter and Grimsrud (with Jean Lundegaard still bound and gagged in the back seat) are pulled over by a state trooper near Brainerd, Minnesota. As the officer explains they were stopped because their car was not displaying temporary registration tags, Showalter makes a clumsy attempt at bribery. The trooper brushes that aside and orders Showalter to step out of the car, at which point Grimsrud produces a large-caliber pistol and blows the trooper’s brains all over the snowy highway. To make matters worse, as Showalter is trying to get the trooper’s body off the road, two passers-by see what has happened. As a result, Grimsrud chases down their car and executes them.
The next morning is when the viewer is introduced to the film’s most compelling character, Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand). Despite the fact she’s third-trimester pregnant and a “mere” small-town police chief, Gunderson proves to be one of the better fictional detectives of all time. She’s the one who figures out the suspect’s car had dealer plates and links the car to Showalter and Grimsrud. Then, Gunderson is the one who tracks Showalter and Grimsrud to the Blue Ox Motel, and through the fact a call was placed from there to Shep Proudfoot, she ties the whole thing to Jerry Lundegaard.
Eventually, Marge investigates the dealership, where Proudfoot plays dumb and through a bunch of non-convincing histrionics, Jerry insists no cars are missing. By now, it’s very clear to the viewer Jerry is up to some white-collar shenanigans with the dealership’s vehicle inventory. perhaps even beyond concealing the theft of the car he used to pay Showalter and Grimsrud. The stakes of the game go up again when Jerry tells Wade and Stan the kidnappers have demanded $1 million and will only deal with him.
Meanwhile, Showalter demands all of the original $80,000 from Jerry as now three people are dead because of this plot. In another example of how this is all spiraling out of control, Proudfoot tracks down Showalter and nearly kills him for bringing Marge Gunderson and her badge down on him.
Feeling the heat, Showalter orders Jerry to deliver the ransom immediately. Upon hearing of this demand, Wade breaks the “terms” by strong-arming Jerry into being the “bag man” for the ransom delivery. Wade meets Showalter on top of a deserted parking garage in downtown Minneapolis. Wade refuses to hand over the money without seeing Jean, prompting Showalter to shoot him. Wade returns fire, hitting Showalter in the face, but only wounding him. Showalter then kills Wade, takes the money, and guns down the parking garage attendant on his way out.
While on his way to the hide-out cabin, Showalter discovers the briefcase he murdered Wade for contains $1 million. He puts $80,000 in his coat pocket for the original split with Grimsrud, then buries the briefcase along the highway. When he gets to the cabin, he discovers Grimsrud murdered Jean because she “wouldn’t stop shrieking.” Showalter hands Grimsrud $40,000 and the keys to his truck, saying he’s keeping the car they got from Jerry. Grimsrud disagrees, but Showalter insists…pointing to the bullet wound to his jaw. As Showalter beings to leave, Grimsrud plants an axe in his chest, killing him instantly.
At the same time, Marge returns to the dealership inquiring about missing vehicles. Jerry goes through more non-convincing histrionics stating there are no cars missing, and makes a big deal out of saying he will go inventory the lot right now. However, he actually hops in his car and flees, prompting Marge to call the state police. Then acting on a tip, Marge drives to the area of the hide-out cabin, where she happens to spot the car.
Investigating further, she witnesses Grimsrud putting Showalter’s dismembered body through a woodchipper. Grimsrud attempts to flee; Marge ends his escape attempt by shooting him in the leg. The plot all comes to it’s end as Jerry’s attempt to escape from justice ends with him in the custody of the North Dakota Highway Patrol; his arrest coming in a roadside motel near Bismarck.
Remember when I said this movie gave me an opportunity to write about North Dakota? For those of you who aren’t familiar, Fargo is the largest city in North Dakota…if you call a place with about 150,000 people a “city.” Debate that all you wish, but as one who lived large parts of his life in North Dakota and Minnesota, I can tell you first-hand that not a single frame of that movie was filmed in Fargo.
In fact, very little of that film was shot in North Dakota. The statue of Paul Bunyan used in the movie was actually in Bathgate, North Dakota. The 24-foot Paul Bunyan statue was built specifically for the film…and subsequently dismantled. So, you can’t go see it. Don’t worry, across North Dakota, northern Minnesota, and Wisconsin, there’s about 500 such monuments, so lots of towns can claim this distinction. It’s like how 100 towns in five different states boast being the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. You can’t blame either because there’s just nothing like the schmaltz of Roadside America.
But, I digress…
Anyway, like the Bunyan monument shown in the movie, many of “flat road” outdoor scenes were filmed in Pembina County, the far most northeastern county in North Dakota. This happened because the winter of 1994-1995 when Fargo was filmed saw unusually low snowfall totals across central and southern Minnesota. I know this because I lived in Minneapolis at the time; in a little pocket of civilization on the south side near the Institute of Arts. I also know that if the Coen Brothers had waited a year, snow in the Twin Cities wouldn’t have been any concern. I know that because that winter was the one where I moved from Minneapolis to the Macalerter-Groveland neighborhood in St. Paul…during a weather event at the end of January which started as rain turning to ice which formed a wonderful winter layer of slippery death under what ended up to be over two feet of snow.
But I digress again…
The point is the aforementioned lack of snow forced the relocation of all the outdoor scenes to places nowhere near the purported settings of Fargo, Brainerd, or Minneapolis.
Because large parts of my youth were spent in southern California, I learned early on how things on the screen aren’t always what they’re supposed to be. For example, thanks to the TV show M*A*S*H, I had no idea that Korea looked exactly like Topanga Canyon. I also thought every teen-ager on TV went to one of the same three high schools. However, by my early adult years in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I had forgotten what having a major motion picture filmed in your backyard was like. That was until the Minnesota-native Coen Brothers came along.
When it comes to Fargo, I almost don’t know where to start. I went to college in North Dakota, so I’m very familiar the film’s name sake city. For those of you who live in the Fargo-Moorhead area, my Red River Valley bona fides are I can remember when there was nothing past West Acres mall on 13th Avenue South until you got to West Fargo, there was almost nothing south of Interstate 94, and in Moorhead, the Hjemkomst didn’t exist yet.
That how I know the pivotal early meeting between Jerry Lundegaard, Carl Showalter, and Gaear Grimsrud…despite being labeled as being in Fargo, North Dakota…was actually shot in a dive bar called The King of Clubs in northeast Minneapolis. Since the movie was filmed close to thirty years ago, the bar fell to the bulldozer’s blade of “progress.” In fact, my initial screening of this movie happened in a theatre in the 50th and France neighborhood, almost literally across the street from the Edina, MN police station which was used for all the “cop shop” scenes; a facility which has since been completely rebuilt..
On that theme, Wade Gustafson’s car dealership was actually Wally McCarthy Oldsmobile in Richfield, MN. It was torn down and replaced by Best Buy’s corporate campus; a soulless glass monstrosity in which I spent far too much time as IT consultant for the even more soulless CompuMegaCorp.
But it was another Minneapolis suburb where the whole California concept of “movies filmed in your backyard” had it’s reincarnation. I had no idea when I moved into a high-rise condo in St. Louis Park that I would be getting my mail in Joel and Ethan Coen’s hometown.
St. Louis Park plays a role in Fargo. The scene in which Jerry Lundegaard discusses the ransom drop with Wade Gustafson and Stan Grossman was shot in an Ember’s Restaurant on Wayzata Boulevard in St. Louis Park. If you’re not familiar, Ember’s was Denny’s-esque chain spread across Minnesota and the Dakotas; the last one closed in 2011. Apparently, the Coen’s found filming in their hometown so hospitable they decided to do it again. Remember the high-rise condo I moved into? Well, right across the street was a synagogue; one that figured prominently in A Serious Man.
At first when you hear a major motion picture is going to be filmed literally 500 feet from your front door, your initial reaction might be a mélange of excitement and curiosity. The chatter around the mailboxes in my building certainly reflected that. However, that feeling faded once the city of St. Louis Park started handing out flyers advising the residents of street parking restrictions and traffic impediments due to the filming. Even the power of celebrity can’t overcome the outright consternation caused when the narrow streets of an old neighborhood clog with 18-wheelers bulging with the wares of a Hollywood production.
Not only does a movie set require trucks full of stuff, all of it needs to be unloaded and assembled, and that process needs to be reversed once the shooting is complete. Not only is that not a noise-free experience, but a movie set can also consume an amazing amount of electricity; so much so the infrastructure of your average residential neighborhood could never accommodate it. In short, that means all that cacophony is underscored by the perpetual mechanical droning of a diesel generator. The upside of all that is before the noise makes you want to blow your brains out, you’ll suffocate from the clouds of diesel fumes coming from all the trucks and that goddamn generator.
And just like the TV infomercials tell you…BUT WAIT!!! THERE’S MORE!!! If the fact that your neighborhood is now a noisy, stinking traffic jam isn’t enough, don’t forget that curiosity and excitement are still the predominant feelings amongst those who don’t live where you do. In other words, you can expect them to add to the traffic jam because they think all this activity suddenly transforms Ottawa Avenue in St. Louis Park into the intersection of Hollywood and Vine.
The bottom line: For all you residents of Fargo, be thankful none your city’s namesake movie was not filmed there.
P.S. Like I said, this isn’t the first installment in this series revolving around North Dakota.
P.P.S. Speaking of the schmaltz of Roadside America, stay tuned because in about six weeks, there will be “bonus coverage” of this post featuring just such attractions from this very part of the world!
P.P.P.S. The woodchipper from the movie is on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitor’s Center, and it even has it’s own Facebook page.
You can see all the episodes of “Story Time” here.
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When they finally get around to making “SportsChump: The Movie,” a giant, looming, ominous statue of J-Dub will be built on the outskirts of town, only to be later dismantled as well. It will have a smirk of disapproval on its face.
Parts of the structure will be sold on eBay to the highest bidder, most likely Mrs. J-Dub, for her to place in or around dartboard.
Good luck with that. I’ve already ensured any posthumous use of my likeness will be surprisingly expensive.
It would be interesting to see what people in Fargo thought of the movie after it came out. I’m guessing there must have been a lot of pointing and laughing or groaning or something. Thanks for contributing, J-Dub–it was great as always!
While I’m sure there are those who “poo-poo” Fargo, my experience is that most NoDaks embrace anything that draws attention to their largely off-the-beaten path state.
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Yep. It’s a beautiful state, too.
Don’t forget… there will be pictures coming in Part II to this post in about five weeks…
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Ooh, nice! I’ll have to look out for those.
Well, I guess when you’re writing, directing and producing, you can have your 24 tall Paul Bunyon statue built and then dismantled without worrying too much about cost. I know it’s not fair or even rational, but somehow, my estimation of the Coen brothers and Fargo is diminished just a tiny bit by this story. 😉
It never really bothered me until I learned first-hand what “on-location” filming does to the poor bastards who live there!
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Fabulous review. I recently read a fab book about this Movie and love to know your thoughts on it should you get a chance to read it… https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/promotions-2/film-book-promotions/fargo-companion/
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