Fargo is a classic American movie. It is a crime drama and I am tempted to call it white noir film. Though noir literally means black this film builds the blackness of human behavior through dullness of white. It is a crime drama about greed and lack of values that control greed but the director Joel Coen uses the nothingness and lack of life in white snow to bring out this dark side of human persona rather than using a typical low-key and high contrast visual style known as Chiaroscuro treatment.
The film begins in white expanse of snow where the setting is established as a desolate far off place. It communicates several things about the film. It is about coldness, lack of vibrancy or life. There is nothing human about it. The first element to be introduced to this expanse of snow is a truck pulling another car, which is a machine and not something one associates with life. There is symmetry of electric poles and the car heads towards the vanishing point on the horizon … it seems like it is heading nowhere or heading to infinity.
There is statue of Paul Bunyan, the ferocious character with an axe in hand. This is very innovatively used to tell us that it’s a bad land. It is a place for the rough and tough. It tells us that Brainerd is a place where only the fittest will survive. It is a place where emotions, sensitivity do not matter and it is as ruthless as jungle. Paul Bunyan is a larger than life hero from the American folklore but if one carefully analyses several visual representations of this character the one selected by the directors shows more ferocity completely devoid of any gentleness. The axe in the hand has a semantic implication; it gives us a feeling that there is likely to be violence and bloodbath.
William H Macy as Jerry Lundegaard portrays this weak person who is desperate to get money from his father in law. He wears were dull clothes all through and carrying large grocery bags or he is fiddling with his ‘I love golf’ stationary nervously. Through his performance his comes across as a pushover, someone extremely low on confidence and someone who is not trustworthy. He is not respected by his subordinates at the card dealership, he cannot negotiate with his customers and his father in law looks at him with great suspicion. His unsure walk and tentative talking shows him as indecisive slapdash person who cannot even call off kidnapping when he wants to because he does not have contact number. He uses hmnn, yaa, real good, yaaa to show how he is just trying to evade answers or responsibility all the time. While negotiating with Wade and Stan he is desperate to make sure that Wade is willing to pay off a million dollars and he gets the money soon. He doesn’t consider a simple possibility that these kidnappers may actually harm his wife and the warning from Shep that a person he does not vouch for is involved does not ring alarm bell in his head, he reacts very casually. He is also trying to fudge with serial numbers on financed cars and nervously rehearsing to break the news of kidnapping to Wade. Jerry also shows his incapable anger once by scraping off the snow on windshield in a rage and banging files in his office but his impotency to impact the situation is evident.
Grimsurd comes across as a cold blooded, adamant and more cruel person among the two kidnappers. His insistence on getting pancakes or unguent and his temper is evident through his performance. He uses cigarette as a prop to effectively show his I care a damn attitude. His deep gaze showing his aggression towards his pray tells us the predatory nature of his persona. The director combines his gaze with Carl’s struggle with the television set and yelling fuck fuck fuck to hint that there may be sexual violence as well, later there is a shot on tv where a female character is talking about pregnancy.
Marge on the other hand comes across as the unlikely hero in the story. She is seven month pregnant. We see her in ruffled clothes and her quirky Scandinavian mid-west sing along accent. Through her acting she portrays herself as an easy going police chief who is witty and sharp with her work. Her emotions are tender and she is a mother to be and rightly worried about moral values in the neighborhood. She is always eating for two and tactfully handles a lecherous friend who ignores her pregnancy and makes advances towards her. Marge is at the moral centre of gravity in this story. She is shocked when she hears about Mike’s cooked up story about losing his wife and is disturbed to see that so many killings took place for a little bit of money. She is the face of optimism and hope and simplicity of life in the movie. Her idea of happiness is simple and ethical.
The interaction between Marge and her husband as well as Jerry and Jean are stark opposites. We can see the warmth and camaraderie between Marge and Norm while with Jerry and Jean the distance is easily apparent.
Jean who is always knitting or chopping or cooking something is too naïve and the directors decide to hide her face once she gets caught in the toilet curtain while trying to escape. Her desperate attempts to escape and her howling with helplessness accentuate her being the innocent victim.
When Marge investigates with prostitutes who provide little usable information – the scene highlights the funny accent and brings in element of comedy at a very unsuspecting moment. Coen brothers have worked like communication designers with lingo from mid-west creating attention hooks for comedy. But more importantly it brings life and authenticity to a story based in a well defined geographic locale.
Roger Deakins’s cinematography is a great exercise in communication design. He uses colours, camera movement, composition, lighting to bring out the director’s vision in the film. The best thing about cinematography in Fargo is it does not loudly shout to make its presence felt. There is nothing extravagant about it but it perfectly aids storytelling.
The wide shots of prairie snow and the dreary expanse set the tone for the film. His composition shows the loneliness of a man traversing the north Dakota winter setting. There is deliberate dullness and domination of white in this film and saturation of colours is low except when there is red colour that codifies bloodshed and death. That red stands out against the bright white of the snow.
The mirror shot of Grimsurd looking for a lotion reveals that Jean may be hiding behind the curtain and that is revealed in a way that builds suspense. Jerry is shown to be walking across maize of trees with no leaves and from the top angle just looks like a tiny drop walking in frustrated solitude after rejection from Wade and Stan. Cut to a shot where he enters the car and the over the shoulder shot reveals that the glass is too foggy to be able to drive, this cues that there is no road ahead for Jerry. The tilt up to a torn curtain and the shot of television with no signal while Jerry is rehearsing call to Wade unfolds the scene of crime and the chaos on the site of the crime.
There is also a tilt down from the Paul Bunyan statue to the road where the kidnapper’s car passes bringing in the element of ferocity. The statue is lit from the bottom giving it more viciousness. When the trooper follows them on the highway we see a shot with red of the beacon signaling danger and silhouette of the hat of the trooper seen. Followed by dramatically composed shot of the car lights and trooper walking in with his torch the suspense builds up. Behind the tense faces of the kidnappers we can see the red beacon and then the shot of red blood splashed on Carl’s face again brings builds up point blank brutality of the killing. In the chase sequence where Grimsurd is looking for the couple who saw Carl drag the body, red tail lamps in nothingness again build up the drama. The man is trying to run is wearing a red jacket and is shot on the white backdrop of the snow. Grimsurd looking into the car with rage and the frightened look of the second passenger caught in a helpless manner in a toppled car shows fear and weakness of the victim both. The shot of the gunshot fired into the car cuts to a black frame suggesting grievousness of the scene.
Smoothly moving camera shows Norm’s studio and then reveals Marge and Norm. In a very subdued manner our unlikely star of the story is introduced to us. The warm lighting in the house and inside out shot of Marge walking out while Norm is munching breakfast shows the warmth and bonhomie in this marriage. The home of Gundersons is tiny but a cosy warm place where there is partnership and respect for each other. The outside world is seen as the cold lonely place. The camera position beautifully communicates the rapport between Marge and Norm.
The recurrent theme of snowy vastness and its emptiness this time has a shot of sunshine hidden behind clouds in a foggy long shot. The kidnappers bring Jean to a far off home hidden insufficiently by winter trees devoid of any leaves.
There is interesting editing where the shot of no-signal television and Carl shouting fuck fuck fuck is cut to a documentary on insects being played out at Gunderson home. Marge is pregnant and she is about life and optimism and this cut brings in an interesting temporality in the story.
Jerry’s cabin is seen from outside like a cage and the shot of Shep Proudfoot being questioned by Marge tells us how she is getting close to perpetrators, similarly composed shot of Jerry banging his files in the cabin haplessly tells us he is trapped completely.
The scene where Wade gives a tough fight to Carl has been shot extremely well. It is a cold dark parking lot and a lonely winter night. In the background there are buildings with no sign of life or activity. Roger Deakins wonderfully captures Wade’s retaliation and then his body is seen lying out in the open. Jerry is nervously chasing Wade bit is too late and crosses Carl who is driving out in rage after the killing. We see Wade’s body lying still on the snow illuminated by his car headlamps and the semantic red of Jerry’s tail lamps is composed in the same frame again.
When Marge spots the car and decides to investigate the house all by herself without waiting for help, the camera follows her and her expression revealing gradually and building our anxiety. Cold bloodedness of Grimsurd is seen in the way he is disposing off the body of his accomplice and the close up up the leg the is left to be chopped in the woodchipper is seen. The socks are white and the contrast between white and red continues.
The way victims and perpetrators of the crime are shot at or caught is similar and it completes the circle of the story with similar visual narrative. There is similarity between how Grimsurd kills the witness and how Marge shoots his leg in the end. Also even Jerry is caught trying to escape through window in his Pajamas howling the same way Jean did.
Marge looks at Grimsurd in the mirror where he is seen behind the grill and questions him about why kill for little bit of money … and Grimsurd remains consistent with his cold blooded I care a damn look.
The close up of Marge while she says there is a lot more to life that little bit of money is very important. Her hope, simplicity, humane quality, emotions of a mother to be are seen in a very touching manner and the eye contact of the camera with Marge is crucial. The movie ends in the warm setting of the house with a very warm exchange of words between the couple. Here the performance is subtle but touching. Norm breaks the news that his work has been selected for not so popular 3 cent stamp, but Marge expresses her pride in him as well as simplicity and innocence of their life. The crime drama with satirical and comic moments ends with a vibrant warm visual of an expectant mother.
To summarize, Fargo is a classic thriller with distinct American flavor to it. This is a movie that deals with crime but breaks away from constraints of a genre and uses various elements of storytelling coherently. Even the violence in the film has a touch of absurdity and the film uses satirical comedy in a complementary manner. It is a film with universal appeal because Marge’s conflict with the value system of people she encounters in this case is human and relatable in every part of the globe. One can safely say that there is not a single visual or shot in the film or even an element of audio that film could have discarded away. It is a film crafted in minute detail on every account from a design perspective.