Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996, USA)
I confess: I watched Fargo (Academy Award nominee for Best Picture and Best Director, Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay) quite late in life. Three years ago, in fact, at home, on DVD, with a very close friend who was watching it for the third time. When it ended, this friend remarked, "you know, when you wake up every morning and see only snow all around you - miles and miles of white - it must drive you to do crazy things." I'm certain he isn't alone in feeling that way, and it comes as no surprise that extreme winter conditions are often used by writers and filmmakers as the setting for dark, twisted and disturbing stories. So often, that it takes a writer and filmmaker of great distinction to extract this scenario from the clutches of cliché and sculpt out of it an original, compelling piece of art. Fargo is a murder mystery. But in the hands of the brothers Coen, Fargo is a twisted, delightfully dark comedy.
The snow in Fargo is not the kind of vile, treacherous character that it is in Frozen River. It is not the vengeful killer of Yol, or the murderous psycho of The Shining. The snow, in Fargo, is a watcher. A calm, quiet, observer, but one that passes judgment, and lets its opinion be known. It is a passive, but important presence that watches as Jean, in her pajamas, and with a sack over her head, runs through the snowy woods like a blind, scared animal, while her kidnappers, Gaear and Carl watch her with amusement. When Gaear and Carl kill the state trooper, the terrain carefully holds his body in its snowy palm, waiting for the police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, Academy Award for Best Actress) to arrive and take a look at it. Ah, you're here, Marge. Look, I kept the evidence intact for you, now let's look at it together, shall we? We get a close up shot - the trooper's skin now frozen blue, the blood dripping down his face now crystallised. In what it observes, and in what it knows, the snow has the same amount of information as we do. It wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to say that the snow, in Fargo, stands in for us, the audience: when Gaear and Carl murder the trooper and the couple that was driving by, the only ones watching are the landscape and the audience. We know what the landscape does, and what Marge doesn't. And quite like the landscape, we are voiceless observers who cannot share this vital information with her.
However, the snow is more than just a passive member of the audience. It is also a sly trickster who chooses its victims based on what seems like a commonly accepted standard of moral judgment. When Carl learns that the bag he took from Wade - Jean's father - contains a million dollars, he decides to hide it from Gaear, by burying it in the snow. (Like the rest of the film, the attention to detail with the cinematography in this shot is delightful. Roger Deakins uses shallow focus so we can see Carl kneeling in the snow, burying the bag, while around him, all we see is white. To the right is a fence, but we can make out just enough of it to know how far behind him it extends. The fact that the fence is out of focus adds to the illusion of the vastness of his surroundings.) Immediately after this, of course, Gaear, unaware of the hidden money, kills Carl. We know that the million dollars are now lost forever, quietly claimed by the snow, in a dark, twisted execution of justice.
Fargo does not tap into the violent, destructive, soul-crushing and deadly characteristics of snow the way several other films do - no, that would be too obvious for the Coen brothers. Fargo shows us how the snow can be sly and calculating, quietly laughing at us, into the cold, silvery night.