The Coen brothers’ fargo was (very loosely) based on a real crime

Although the title card for Fargo confidently states, “This is a true story,” the Coen brothers’ classic crime thriller is actually fiction. This is well known at this point, but the Coens took inspiration from actual real-world events when constructing the story. Rather than being an accurate retelling of a true crime story, the script is a bit of a hodgepodge of elements drawn from multiple news events, with a good dose of the Coens’ own original contribution. Oddly enough, the notoriously gruesome woodcutter scene that seems like the most made-up part of the whole story is actually the part of the film that comes closest to reality.

An inspiration, such an interview with The Huffington Post, was John McNamara, who defrauded General Motors of $6 billion. Another possible influence was the case of St. Paul attorney T. Eugene Thompson, who beat up his wife to collect her life insurance money. The Minnesota crime location and the Coen-like nature of the grim debacle were probably the reason people believed it served as that basis for “Fargo”, although Joel Coen has claimed he never heard of the case. The most definitive factual connection, however, is the murder of Helle Crafts.

The Woodcutter Murder


On November 18, 1986, flight attendant Helle Crafts disappeared from a trip to West Germany after arriving in Newtown, Connecticut. She had feuded with her husband Richard ever since she hired a private investigator and found out he was having an affair with another woman. Richard had not taken their divorce plans lightly and she began to warn her friends about his increasingly violent nature, so suspicion against Richard arose as soon as Hell was nowhere to be found. At first Richard claimed she was visiting her mum in Denmark, but over the weeks his story shifted to claiming she was in the Canary Islands. Despite this, local Newtown police knew Richard through a volunteer program and dismissed all allegations, so Richard’s crimes didn’t surface until the day after Christmas when Connecticut State Police showed up.

A search of Richard’s home revealed a piece of carpet was missing from the bedroom and a bloodstain on the mattress, while an investigative interview with the nanny revealed the blood was also on the part of the carpet that was no longer there. In addition, credit card receipts listed Richard’s purchase of a freezer, sheets, a duvet, and, most frighteningly, a wood chipper and chainsaw. Finally, a snowplow driver told police he saw a man with a wood chipper near Lake Zoar, a reservoir on the Housatonic River. An examination of the site revealed a chainsaw blade along with blood and human bone and tissue fragments, over 2,660 strands of blond hair, a fingernail with pink nail polish, and the crown of a tooth that matched Helle’s dental pads.

An (un)usual thriller


Despite all this evidence, the lack of a physical body led to a lengthy trial, and Richard Helle was not convicted until 1989, the first incident of a guilty homicide in Connecticut with no body present. Although the Coens initially drew vague parallels to true crime events, the Special Edition DVD confirms that the Crafts case inspired the woodcutter scene at the end of the film.

But in an interview with Cinephilia & BeyondJoel and Ethan Coen explained that any real stories they referred to when writing “Fargo” are only of surface value:

“In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and characters are fictional. We were not interested in making a documentary and we did not research the nature of the murders or the events connected to them. But by warning viewers that we found our inspiration in a true story, we prepared them not to view the film as an ordinary thriller.”

Aside from the woodcutter himself and perhaps the general idea of ​​a marriage gone awry, no other aspects of the woodcutter murder were actually included in Fargo. The incident was just one piece of the larger puzzle that became “Fargo,” itself a tale of interconnected bad decisions, bad instincts, and bad luck. The Coens blended disparate elements of truth and fiction to create a strange, borderline absurd world that also feels uncomfortably realistic.

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The Coen brothers’ contribution Fargo was based (very loosely) on a real crime first appeared on /Film.

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