Posted June 22, 2014 by D. K. Holm
Some years ago I came up with the sub-noir genre film soleil, consisting of crime thrillers set in sunny climes and with a different moral alignment than the typical films noirs of 1938 – 1957. Later half jokingly I added another sub-sub genre, in fact sub-temperature genre, called film glacé, consisting of crime films set in the snowy north. But the more I thought about it, the more this odd genre seemed really to exist, with titles from the 1950s to now, among them Ray’s On Dangerous Ground; the Sam Raimi adaptation of the novel A Simple Plan; Thin Ice, a clever film glacé by one of my favorite filmmakers, Jill Sprecher; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is kind of a cheat because it is still set in Los Angeles, but during Christmas; The Ice Harvest; Deadfall; Killshot, from the Elmore Leonard novel; both Insomnia‘s; and parts of Out of Sight.
Now we can add to the list both the movie version and the recently completed TV version of Fargo on FX. Fargo was the award winning wry comedy-thriller from the Coen Brothers in 1996. The movie inspired a network show that didn’t get past the pilot, and now it’s a short season series along the lines of True Detective, apparently coming up with new stories and settings with each season. The brain child of Noah Hawley (The Unusuals) who wrote every episode, Fargo is a take off on the source film, with events that, as it were, are happening the next county over in Minnesota. Bits of the film pop up in Fargo, but so do traces of other deadpan Coen films, from Raising Arizona (a blustery local entrepreneur with TV commercials), Burn After Reading (dumb exercise gurus), and No Country for Old Men, the biggest influence, with Fargo’s Lorne Malvo played by Billy Bob Thornton as a wandering murderous minstrel uttering paradoxes and quizzes.
Malvo meets Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) in a hospital waiting room, after the hen-pecked Lester has had his nose broken in a confrontation with his old grade school bully nemesis. Like strangers on a train, they make a pact that Lester wasn’t fully conscious of endorsing, and the next thing he knows, his foe is dead. But the bully was also a local businessman, part of the region’s corrupt trucking empire and agents from Fargo come to find out who committed the murder. Fargo represents the out-of-state big shots who swoop down on the provinces when they get out of hand, like Detroit to Harlan County in Justified. Meanwhile, local cop Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is investigating the increasing body count of Bemidji and – in tandem – Duluth, and seeing them all connected, like a tranquil Carrie Mathison.
It’s a tale that could have been told in 98 minutes. Instead it is stretched out to 10 episodes and about 11 hours, too much of that filled with unnecessary scenes (two much of killer partners Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers, and of FBI partners Key and Peele) and padding (like the dreadful Deadwood). Like most TV, there is too much of a car seen driving down a street, pulling up, the driver getting out, walking up steps, ringing a doorbell, being greeted, going inside … and on and on. You could probably save an episode’s worth of time just gutting that filler. However, any conscious reduction of the content would have to retain certain key elements, such as the delightful relationship between Duluth cop Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks) and his daughter, the tense Episode Nine scene between Malvo and diner owner and ex-cop Keith Carradine where both are on to each other while others are on the verge of arriving at the café, turning it potentially into the bar at the end of Sorcerer, and also, finally, the editor must still manage to make plausible the transformation of Lester from Walter White to Heisenberg, which is extremely well-done and believable.
Since the Coen Bros. have made a career of borrowing or being inspired by others, it’s amusing to have then be ransacked by the show runners. But then, everyone is borrowing from everyone these days, under the rubric of “influence,” “homage,” and “curating.” The Coens make an interesting contrast with Tarantino, from whom the show borrows his signature point-of-view shot from inside a car trunk (though he borrowed the set up in turn). Tarantino’s borrowings are always obvious, at least to fellow film aficionados. The Coens, however, bury their borrowings deep within the movie’s structure, such as, say, in the story set-up or the preceding noir novels that influence them. Coen movies are more of a piece, more “classic” filmmaking of the 1970s, itself inspired by the well-made movie of the Hollywood studio system at its peak, 1935 – 1949. The biggest link to both the Coens and to film glacé Thornton. He was in the Coens’ The Man who Wasn’t There, and is in two of the films listed above. But it is less the Coen Brothers or even Tarantino, from whom the show runners borrow. Really, it’s Wes Anderson with his bright sets and family hang ups, and mating rituals, and shots framed along the lines of one point perspective. I don’t know that much more can be made of this other than that Mr. Anderson is becoming a go-to guy for problem solving, in the way that Terrence Malick is the source for airy, vague, symbolic sequences about life affirmation.
When you have 10 hours to fill, the temptation is to submit to common tropes. Here we have the cliché of the vulgar, dining gangster slobbering over his food while discussing death and taxes (episode six). At the same time, the show runners can play with the serial TV drama forms: instead of saying “Previously on” at the beginning of each episode, the actor says, “Erstwhile on,” or another artful variation. But probably the strongest element of the show is that though at first it’s lesson seems to be that one shouldn’t get involved in a crime unless you are a cold calculating genius like Malvo’s, instead there is a little bit of Malvo in all of us that just needs to be unleashed, and, like the police chief in the show, played by Bob Odenkirk, who finally comes to see the wisdom of his lady cop’s ratiocination, we can all change.