fargoI chose today’s script because I wanted to read something that would make me think at the same time it reminded me of why I love our craft. I’d grown tired of Black List scripts not good enough to justify a five question analysis. I wanted to engage with material again. The Coens, even when they are not their best, are still better than almost everyone else when it comes to script mechanics. I knew I’d find, within their catalog, a story that inspired my critical self.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) If there were an area I was not looking forward to completing in this review… it was these dialogue questions. I had no doubt I would be able to explain why the Coens deserve their reputation as geniuses of dialogue, I’m just not sure how many different ways I can say it. When I review Coen Brothers dialogue, I always end by just being obsequious.

That qualifier out of the way, how did they do with exposition? The first example scene will be from pages 3-5:

I’m, uh, Jerry Lundegaard –

You’re Jerry Lundegaard?

Yah, Shep Proudfoot said –

Shep said you’d be here at 7:30.
What gives, man?

Shep said 8:30.

We been sitting here an hour.
I’ve peed three times already.

I’m sure sorry. I – Shep told
me 8:30. It was a mix-up, I

Ya got the car?

Yah, you bet. It’s in the lot
there. Brand-new burnt umber

Yeah, okay. Well, siddown then.
I’m Carl Showalter and this is
my associate Gaear Grimsrud.

Yah, how ya doin’. So, uh, we
all set on this thing, then?

Sure, Jerry, we’re all set. Why
wouldn’t we be?

Yah, no, I’m sure you are. Shep
vouched for you and all. I got
every confidence in you fellas.
They stare at him. An awkward beat.

… So I guess that’s it, then.
Here’s the keys –

No, that’s not it, Jerry.


The new vehicle, plus forty
thousand dollars.

Yah, but the deal was, the car
first, see, then the forty
thousand, like as if it was the
ransom. I thought Shep told you –

Shep didn’t tell us much, Jerry.

Well, okay, it’s –

Except that you were gonna be
here at 7:30.

Yah, well, that was a mix-up, then.

Yeah, you already said that.

Yah. But it’s not a whole payin-
advance deal. I give you a
brand-new vehicle in advance and –

I’m not gonna debate you, Jerry.


I’m not gonna sit here and debate.
I will say this though: what Shep
told us didn’t make a whole lot
of sense.

Oh, no, it’s real sound. It’s
all worked out.

You want your own wife kidnapped?


Carl Stares. Jerry looks blankly back.

… You – my point is, you pay
the ransom – what eighty thousand
bucks? – I mean, you give us
half the ransom, forty thousand,
you keep half. It’s like robbing
Peter to play Paul, it doesn’t
make any –

Okay, it’s – see, it’s not me
payin’ the ransom. The thing is,
my wife, she’s wealthy – her dad,
he’s real well off. Now, I’m in
a bit of trouble –

What kind of trouble are you in,

Well, that’s, that’s, I’m not go
inta, inta – see, I just need
money. Now, her dad’s real
wealthy –

So why don’t you just ask him
for the money?

fargo 2Grimsrud, the dour man who has not yet spoken, now softly
puts in with a Swedish-accented voice:

Or your fucking wife, you know.

Or your fucking wife, Jerry.

Well, it’s all just part of this –
they don’t know I need it, see.
Okay, so there’s that. And even
if they did, I wouldn’t get it.
So there’s that on top, then. See,
these’re personal matters.

Personal matters.

Yah. Personal matters that
needn’t, uh –

Okay, Jerry. You’re tasking us
to perform this mission, but you,
you won’t, uh, you won’t – aw,
fuck it, let’s take a look at
that Ciera.

Clearly, there is a lot of exposition in these lines. The whole premise of the movie is set up in these three pages of dialogue. Just as clearly, you know I’m going to end up giving the brothers all the points on this question. Am I, again, guilty of holding the brothers to a lower standard than other screenwriters?

If this were a short and it ended on page seven then yes, I would be guilty. Fortunately [for my reviewing credibility] the script goes on for another 100 pages.

The reason why this scene works so well, in spite of the fact that it brims with exposition, is because it also brims with SUBTEXT. The dominant subtextual theme which courses through this script is Jerry’s inability to get anyone to do what he wants them to do. Jerry has his plan, and if people would just do what he needs them to do, everything would work out fine, AND NO ONE WOULD GET HURT. [This aspect will become vitally important later when we discuss theme.]

On the flipside, Carl and Grimsrud can’t get Jerry to do what they want either. Intentions are a two-way street in Fargo, and traffic is stopped in both directions.

I’ll take one more example for the sake of completeness. We will look at the introduction of Jerry’s father-in-law, Wade. From page 7-9:


Jerry, his wife, Wade and Scotty, twelve years old, sit

May I be excused?

Sure, ya done there?

Uh-huh. Goin’ out.

Where are you going?

Just out. Just McDonald’s.

Back at 9:30.


He just ate. And he didn’t finish.
He’s going to McDonald’s instead
of finishing here?

He sees his friends there. It’s

It’s okay? McDonald’s? What do
you think they do there? They
don’t drink milkshakes, I assure

It’s okay, Dad.

Wade, have ya had a chance to
think about, uh, that deal I was
talkin’ about, those forty acres
there on Wayzata?

You told me about it.

Yah, you said you’d have a think
about it. I understand it’s a
lot of money –

A heck of a lot. What’d you
say you were gonna put there?

A lot. It’s a limited –

I know it’s a lot.

I mean a parking lot.

Yah, well, seven hundred and
fifty thousand dollars is a lot
– ha ha ha!

Yah, well, it’s a chunk, but –

I thought you were gonna show
it to Stan Grossman. He passes
on this stuff before it gets
kicked up to me.

Well, you know Stan’ll say no
dice. That’s why you pay him.
I’m asking you here, Wade. This
could work out real good for me
and Jean and Scotty –

Jean and Scotty never have to

In order for this script to work, we need to know that Wade is obsessed with his money and doesn’t think Jerry is worthwhile as a son-in-law.  We also need to know Wade has no real talent of his own—it must be obvious that he’s come by his money more by luck than brains. None of the lines from the quoted scene say ANY of those things. And yet, they also say all of those things… through inspired use of subtext.

This script reminds me why I always say subtext is the only natural form of exposition.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Well, we already mentioned the word subtext twice just in talking about exposition, so our brothers aren’t likely to lose any points here either. What I would like to do is trace the SMALL ways in which the dominant subtext swells and gets reinforced. The first example comes from pages 10-11:

Jerry is sitting in his glassed-in salesman’s cubicle just
off the showroom floor. On the other side of his desk sit
an irate customer and his wife.

We sat here right in this room and
went over this and over this!

Yah, but that TruCoat –

I sat right here and said I didn’t
want no TruCoat!

Yah, but I’m sayin’, that TruCoat,
you don’t get it and you get
oxidization problems. It’ll cost
you a heck of lot more’n five
hunnert –

You’re sittin’ here, you’re talkin’
in circles! You’re talkin’ like
we didn’t go over this already!

Yah, but this TruCoat –

We had us a deal here for nineteen-
five. You sat there and
darned if you didn’t tell me
you’d get this car, these options,
WITHOUT THE SEALANT, for nineteen-

Okay, I’m not sayin’ I didn’t –

You called me twenty minutes ago
and said you had it! Ready to
make delivery, ya says! Come on
down and get it! And here ya are
and you’re wastin’ my time and
you’re wastin’ my wife’s time and
I’m payin’ nineteen-five for this
vehicle here!

Well, okay, I’ll talk to my boss…
He rises, and, as he leaves:

… See, they install that TruCoat
at the factory, there’s nothin’ we
can do, but I’ll talk to my boss.

If Jerry were a real salesman, this trucoat wouldn’t be a problem. The customers sign on the dotted line and are happy to do it. Jerry is just terrible at getting other humans to do what he needs. Whenever someone resists, he blocks, when that someone escalates, he caves.

The back half of this scene is even MORE interesting [for our thematic purposes]. From pages 11-12:

Jerry re-enters.

Well, he never done this before,
but seein’ as it’s special
circumstances and all, he says I
can knock one hunnert off that

One hundred! You lied to me, Mr.
Lundegaard. You’re a bald-faced

Jerry sits staring at his lap.

… A fucking liar –

Bucky, please!

Jerry mumbles into his lap:

One hunnert’s the best we can
do here.

Oh, for Christ’s sake, where’s my
goddamn checkbook. Let’s get this
over with.

Neither party gets what they want, and an unhappy compromise is struck that makes both parties feel like losers. Are the Coens suggesting that, in human interaction, nobody wins?

Another example from pages 27-31:

We hear the trooper’s door open.

The trooper walks up the shoulder, one hand resting lightly
on top of his holster, his breath steaming in the cold night

Carl opens his window as the trooper draws up.

How can I help you, officer?

The trooper scans the inside of the car, taking his time.
Grimsrud smokes and gazes calmly out his window.

This is a new car, then, sir?

It certainly is, officer. Still
got that smell!

You’re required to display
temporary tags, either in the
plate area or taped inside the
back window.

Certainly –

Can I see your license and
registration please?


He reaches for his wallet.

… I was gonna tape up the
temporary tag, ya know, to be
in full compliance, but it, uh,
it, uh … must a slipped my

He extends his wallet toward the trooper, a folded fiftydollar
bill protruding from it.

… So maybe the best thing
would be to take care of that,
right here in Brainerd.

What’s this, sir?

That’s my license and registration.
I wanna be in

He forces a laugh.

… I was just thinking I could
take care of it right here. In

The policeman thoughtfully pats the fifty into the billfold
and hands the billfold back into the car.

Put that back in your pocket,

Carl’s nervous smile fades.

… And step out of the car,
please, sir.

Grimsrud, smiling thinly, shakes his head.
There is a whimpering sound.

The policeman hesitates.

Another sound.

The policeman leans forward into the car, listening.
Grimsrud reaches across Carl, grabs the trooper by the hair
and slams his head down onto the car door.

The policeman grunts, digs awkwardly for footing outside and
throws an arm for balance against the outside of the car.
With his free hand, Grimsrud pops the glove compartment. He
brings a gun out and reaches across Carl and shoots – BANG –
into the back of the trooper’s head.

Jean screams.

All the violence in this scene would be avoided if the people in it would cooperate with each other. If the Trooper accepts the money from Carl and leaves, he doesn’t die. If Jean doesn’t whimper [Grimsrud specifically tells her to be quiet] the Trooper doesn’t notice her, and the Trooper doesn’t die.

The scene, and the whole rest of the movie, devolve into deepening pits of violence because no one will cooperate. Each person wants exactly what s/he wants and is unwilling to give and take. The result is that no one [Marge is interesting and we will discuss her more later.] gets what s/he wants.

As usual [with the Coens] I could write a full book on the subtext in this script. This trope of the effects of non-cooperation among humans infuses EVERY scene. It’s a miracle of writing. I know how much this script is praised, but all that praise is insufficient to what has been accomplished. You could literally learn how to write great subtextual dialogue by doing nothing but reading this script over and over again.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) I won’t bother with exemplifying the individuation portion of this question. The “accent” in Fargo draws 498,000 hits on google by itself. These brothers create unique characters every time. Whenever I read them, I always leave their script feeling as though they’ve struck a Faustian bargain. I hope whatever they traded for their talent was worth it.

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

Fortunately [for the length of this review] I’ve already talked a great deal about the merit of these first ten pages. They set up our premise, our characters, and our theme with perfection. I suppose I could fault them for not getting to the actual abduction by page 10. Maybe?

18 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) It is in this section of this question that I sometimes think the Coens can struggle. Not so, with this script. From page one until his arrest on 102, Jerry’s poor choices close in on him like a vice. With infallible regularity, every scene walks him a few steps closer to the ledge from which he will eventually fall.

What I love about the reveals is the way they constrict while still leaving him a little room to move. Jerry seizes on these opportunities and [the first time you read the script] you will be wondering if he can blunder his way to freedom. The balance the Coens strike in eliminating Jerry’s possible movements while still leaving him room to hope he’ll pull his scam off, also borders on genius.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Who is the protagonist of Fargo? Jerry or Marge? [I feel like I’m back in No Country for Old Men.] Someone out there might make a compelling case for Jerry, but that person won’t be me.

I’ll acknowledge that the biggest problem with Marge as protagonist is that she doesn’t show up until page 34:

The phone rings.

The woman stirs.

Oh, geez…

She reaches for the phone.

… Hi, it’s Marge…

Page 34 is WAY TOO LATE to introduce a protagonist, even if you are the Coen Brothers. So, to those who want to think of Jerry as the protagonist, I can’t completely disagree with you. I’ll make my case for Marge more forcefully when we get to theme. For now, I’ll just say the surface engine that drives Marge is doing her job well. In this case, that means solving the triple homicide that occurred in her tiny town. The larger engine that drives Marge is finding love.

A pregnant police chief, with an artist husband, strikes me as an INTERESTING choice to match to a “finding love” engine. We’ll see what the Coens make of these ingredients when we get a little further into the review.

2 out of 5 points [mainly for waiting until page 34]

Part C) Any reasonable interpretation of Fargo would most likely identify the pinch point as being somewhere in the scene where Carl and Wade shoot each other, and Carl runs off with the million dollars in the briefcase. I, however, am determined to be unreasonable. I will define the pinch point to be in this exchange on page 84:

What’d he say?

Well, it was nothin’ specific
he said, it just seemd like it
all hit him really hard, his
wife dyin’ –

His wife?



Linda Cooksey?

No. No. No. They weren’t –
he, uh, he was bothering Linda
for about, oh, for a good year.
Really pestering her, wouldn’t
leave her alone.

So … they didn’t…

No. No. They never married.
Mike’s had psychiatric problems.

Oh. Oh, my.

Specifically, in the line about the psychiatric problems.

This works well. It makes this script fascinating to me. Structurally, it’s also on the late side, but I like the fact that a script with so much violence in it thinks its biggest reveal concerns some MOSTLY harmless psychiatric problems.

4 out of 5 points.

Part D) I’ll begin this question by quoting all the scenes between Marge and Glen. [Mike in the filmed version.] It’ll make for a longer review, but I think seeing them all together makes a great point. We’ll begin with Glen’s introduction on pages 52-53:


The bedroom is dark. Norm is snoring.

The phone rings.

Marge gropes in the dark.


Yah, is this Marge?


Margie Olmstead?

… Well, yah. Who’s this?

This is Glen Yanagita. Ya know
– Glen Yanagita. Remember me?

… Glen Yanagita!


Marge props herself up next to the still-sleeping Norm.

Yah, yah, course I remember.
How are ya? What time is it?

Oh, geez. It’s quarter to eleven.
I hope I dint wake you.

No, that’s okay.

Yah, I’m down in the Twin Cities
and I was just watching on TV
about these shootings up in
Brainderd, and I saw you on the
news there.


I thought, geez, is that Margie
Olmstead? I can’t believe it!

Yah, that’s me.

Well, how the heck are ya?

Okay, ya know. Okay.


Yah – how are you doon?

Oh, pretty good.

Heck, it’s been such a long time,
Mike. It’s great to hear from ya.

Yah… Yah, yah. Geeze, Margie!

On the surface this seems like a fairly innocent interaction. A guy calls a woman he used to know to ask her how she’s doing… after seeing her on the late news. Polite catching up/small talk ensues, after which, they end the call with no promises to stay in touch.

In fact, this scene is so remedial, why is it in the script at all? Did the Coens just forget to excise a bit of dialogue that wasn’t really advancing their story. In other words, were they just being lazy… or assuming they could get by because they’re the Coens and critics don’t dare question them?

It turns out that Glen will be the character with the psychiatric condition in the line I referenced earlier as my pick for the pinch point. My question to you is: How does Marge not recognize his strangeness just from their interaction in this scene?

1. He’s calling a private residence at 10:45pm.
2. Where did he get the number?
3. He only decided to call her after seeing her on the news. That isn’t normal behavior. It’s as if the elevation in her public profile has caused his interest.

Throughout the script, Marge exercises her reasoning skills to make accurate deductions about the crimes which are flaring up in her small town. She is always right. So, how does she miss all the warning signals Glen emits during their conversation?

We’ll follow this up with the only other appearance Glen makes in the script. From pages 66-69:


Marge enters. She looks around the bar, a rather
characterless, lowlit meeting place for business people.


It is a bald, paunching man of about Marge’s age, rising
from a booth halfway back. His features are broad,
friendly, Asian-American.


He approaches somewhat carefully, as if on his second drink.
They hug and head back toward the booth.

Geez! You look great!

Yah – easy there – you do too!
I’m expecting, ya know.

I see that! That’s great!

A waitress meets them at the table.

… What can I get ya?

Just a Diet Coke.

Again she glances about.

… This is a nice place.

Yah, ya know it’s the Radisson,
so it’s pretty good.

You’re livin’ in Edina, then?

Oh, yah, couple years now. It’s
actually Eden Prarie – that school
district. So Chief Gunderson, then!
So ya went and married Norm Son-ofa-

Oh, yah, a long time ago.

Great. What brings ya down – are
ya down here on that homicide –
if you’re allowed, ya know, to
discuss that?

Oh, yah, but there’s not a heckuva
lot to discuss. What about you,
Glen? Are you married – you have

Well, yah, I was married. I was
married to – You mind if I sit
over here?

He is sliding out of his side of the booth and easing in
next to Marge.

… I was married to Linda
Cooksey –

No, I – Mike – wyncha sit over
there, I’d prefer that.

Huh? Oh, okay, I’m sorry.

No, just so I can see ya, ya know.
Don’t have to turn my neck.

Oh, sure, I unnerstand, I didn’t
mean to –

No, no, that’s fine.

Yah, sorry, so I was married to
Linda Cooksey – ya remember Linda?
She was a year behind us.

I think I remember Linda, yah.
She was – yah. So things didn’t
work out, huh?

And then I, and then I been workin’
for Honeywell for a few years now.

Well, they’re a good outfit.

Yah, if you’re an engineer, yah,
you could do a lot worse. Of
course, it’s not, uh, it’s
nothin’ like your achievement.

It sounds like you’re doin’ really

Yah, well, I, uh … it’s not that
it didn’t work out – Linda passed
away. She, uh…

I’m sorry.

Yah, I, uh… She had leukemia,
you know…

No, I didn’t…

It was a tough, uh … it was a
long – She fought real hard,

I’m sorry, Mike.

Oh, ya know, that’s, uh – what
can I say?…

He holds up his drink.

… Better times, huh?

Marge clinks it.

Better times.

I was so… I been so … and
then I saw you on TV, and I
remembered, ya know… I always
liked you…

Well, I always liked you, Glen.

I always liked ya so much…

It’s okay, Glen – Should we get
together another time, ya think?
No – I’m sorry! It’s just – I
been so lonely – then I saw you,

He is weeping.

… I’m sorry… I shouldn’t a
done this… I thought we’d have
a really terrific time, and now

It’s okay…

You were such a super lady …
and then I… I been so lonely…

It’s okay, Glen…

[Remember, in the filmed version of this script Glen’s name was changed to Mike.]

Once again, a quick reading of the script would lead you to believe this is an incomplete pass delivered solely by Glen—Marge seems to bear no responsibility whatsoever for Glen’s actions in this encounter.

When you begin to look harder at this scene, however, three things ring false.

First, how was the meeting arranged?

There is no way these two meet unless they’ve discussed it on the phone beforehand. This isn’t a chance encounter. In fact, without getting too carried away, this comes REAL close to being a dinner “date”. This means they’ve had at least one conversation [and who knows how many more] in an illicit way. For all of Norm and Marge’s true love bluster, Norm doesn’t know she’s meeting Glen. She is doing this behind his back.

From pages 74-75, and immediately after getting back to her room following her dinner date with Glen [this will be issue number two in my case against Marge]:

Yah, okay. How’s the hotel?

Oh, pretty good. They bitin’?

Yeah, couple a muskies. No pike
yet. How d’you feel?

Oh, fine.

Not on your feet too much?

No, no.

You shouldn’t be on your feet too
much, you got weight you’re not
used too. How’s the food down

Had dinner at a place called the
King’s Table. Buffet style. It
was pretty darn good.

Was it reasonable?

Yah, not too bad. So it’s nice
up there?

Yah, it’s good. No pike yet, but
it’s good.

If the dinner with Glen was completely harmless, why does Marge lie by omission?

My third issue with Marge is the way she dimisses her relationship with Norm when talking with Glen:

Oh, yah, couple years now. It’s
actually Eden Prarie – that school
district. So Chief Gunderson, then!
So ya went and married Norm Son-ofa-

Oh, yah, a long time ago.

Is this really the manner in which you talk about the love of your life? Wouldn’t Norm be upset if he knew she were having dinner with some random guy she used to know and when he gives her the opportunity to declare her love for him [Norm], she just says:

Oh, yah, a long time ago.

Having cited all these scenes, I’m now ready to say the following is the theme of Fargo:

Love is impossible.

You might think I’m being hyperbolic. You might even think I’m just trying to create symmetry between this review and my review of Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m not doing anything.

The dominant subtext in this script is about human cooperation. Each person in the script [in every single scene] needs someone to cooperate with him/her to achieve a goal. Each person in the script is frustrated in achieving his/her need.

Love is the highest form of cooperation two people can engage in. The ONLY people who [on the surface] seem to cooperate at a high level are Marge and Norm. Yet, we’ve just seen how Marge’s cooperation comes with illicit phone calls and lies of omission.

Now, what about Norm?

I was trying to explain my ideas about this script to my wife, and I told her Norm was the missing link in my interpretation. All he ever does for Marge is feed her. He’s MILITANT about feeding her. In exchange for this, he requires her to be supportive of his paintings [even though those paintings are only worthy of getting on a 3 cent stamp]. Their relationship has no depth, for sure, but it’s hard to say Norm is not cooperating with Marge. My wife says to me:

He’s feeding her physically but not emotionally.

And that’s when I knew my interpretation of the theme of this script was correct. The point of Fargo is the same point the Coens made in Inside Llewyn Davis:

Love is impossible.

I don’t agree with this theme. However, the craftsmanship displayed to illustrate it is sublime. I’ve never seen subtext work so cohesively with theme to make a unified argument. These Coen Brothers ARE the best writers of screenplays on this planet.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) There is nothing unique in this story. It’s the same old story we’ve seen a dozen times before. The horrific scene of woodchipper violence is hardly even shocking anymore:

3 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing in this script, on the other hand, is astounding. The subtlety in the craftsmanship approaches perfection, especially when compared to the obviousness of the subject matter.

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

How could we be? This is a depressing view of humanity. If Marge isn’t good, then none of us are. The premises this film gives, and the conclusion it draws, are made much worse by the opening title card:

The following text fades in over black:

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 occured.

Which is, of course, a lie. To tell you the truth, though, I can’t take points away. I just can’t. The script is too damn brilliant.

10 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 92


4 responses to “Fargo

  1. Another fantastic read, JB.

    Your interpretation of the pinch point is spot-on.

    Kudos to the wife for succinctly summarizing Norm and Marge! “He’s feeding her physically but not emotionally.” That was an eye-opener.

  2. Can’t get with all the love for Fargo or the Coens in general, but it is great to see all the activity on this site.

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