One of the great ironies of Fargo, the Coen brothers’ bloody black comedy that turned 20 this week, is that most of the movie takes place not in the titular North Dakotan city but in the directors’ home state of Minnesota. Even so, the beloved film will be forever linked to the metropolis that gave it its name.
That wasn’t always a good thing for locals, especially as the film — about a pregnant police officer (Francis McDormand) on the trail of a bizarre kidnapping plot — caught fire at the box office, earned seven Oscar nominations (winning two), and became a cultural phenomenon. Fans all over the world loved those unmistakable, irresistible-to-attempt Scandanavian-Midwestern (or “Minnewegian”) accents. Quotes from the film like “Yah, sure,” “You betcha!” and “You’re darn tootin!” were recited ad nauseam.
“Some people just really got irritated,“ said Cole Carley, the retired former Director of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Because they felt that they just made fun of us.” Carley himself was “on the floor” laughing, he explained, “but some people took it very personally.”
Said Jeff Eslinger, who worked with the North Dakota Film Commission at the time of the film’s release and helped facilitate its production: “There were people on the way out of the premiere complaining, ‘Oh, we don’t talk like that.’ And they sounded exactly like [the film’s characters] when they said that.”
Overall, though, the people of Fargo (or “the Paris of the prairie,” as Carley calls it) were split. Margie Bailly, formerly the executive director of the Fargo Theater and creator of the Fargo Film Festival, estimated that “initially, 60 percent of people hated it, 40 percent loved it…. There were a lot of angry people who thought we had been depicted as rubes.”
“Some people understood that it was just a film, and we should appreciate it,” Carley said. “It was a good film, it was a funny film. And there were some elements of reality in it.”
Like with all regional accents, not everyone in the area sounds distinctly, stereotypically, Fargo-ian. Locals will tell you the accent was exaggerated for comical effect, and Carley said the dialect is usually heard among older generations. Overall, they’re in the minority.
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It took a few years, Carley said, but eventually he began to notice a shift in the community’s collective mind-set, since “it’s all good publicity.“
"It added to this synergy that was already going on,” said Bailly, noting the city’s recent downtown renaissance. “Even though locals resented it and thought that we were inappropriately portrayed, what it did was create this sort of mystique around all things Fargo.
"So people began to see that the magnetic, mystical quality of the movie was bringing people here out of curiosity, and when they got here, they found out that it was more than you expect.”
And it’s a good thing, with the FX television program Fargo premiering in 2014… and like its predecessor, becoming a hit. “When the TV series came out, I thought, Hallelujah!,” the tourism-minded Carley said. "Fargo, Fargo, Fargo. Let’s keep going. Let’s keep hammering that name out. Because it’s not necessarily a top-of-mind destination.”
Carley said it’s impossible to measure what sort of uptick the city’s received in visitors given the popularity of both the movie and TV show, but Fargo has increasingly embraced —even celebrated — its Hollywood infamy in the years since the film’s divisive 1996 release.
When the movie was released on DVD in 2003, MGM Home Entertainment commissioned a statue of McDormand’s character, Marge Gunderson, made entirely out of wood chips. The 8-foot-tall, 500-pound statue has been on display on the second floor of the city’s famed Fargo Theater ever since.
As the film’s 15th anniversary in 2011 approached, Carley’s marketing director at the visitor’s bureau at the time, Brian Matson, proposed to build a replica of the movie’s iconic wood chipper. They eventually ended up landing the actual wood chipper from the film, which is now situated in the tourism center’s lobby and even has its own Facebook page.
“I think people who were irritated have become a lot more accepting of it,” Carley said. “They understand it wasn’t a documentary, for god’s sake.”
Added Eslinger: “It’s become kind of a thing now. I’ll hear people using the so-called Minnesota or Fargo accent in comedy routines and stuff that’s totally unrelated to the film. So in a way it’s maybe a badge of honor. We got noticed, and we might be a little quirky, but we have a good sense of humor about it.”
Eslinger thinks that if there are any lingering negative attitudes to the movie, it has less to do with the film’s depiction of regional accents than it does its depiction of bloody murder and mayhem. North Dakotans — like Minnesotans and Wisconsinites — may endure cold winter climates, but they’re famously warmhearted and friendly people. Luckily, the perception that they could actually be homicidal maniacs wasn’t the cultural sticking point that caught on.