Snow Is the New Noir: In Praise of Wintery Crime Films

Movies like Deadfall and Fargo show that the white of ice can be as powerful a filmmaking tool as shadow.

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Magnolia

A black car speeds down a black road, amid skeletal black trees, surrounded by the white of a snow-covered landscape. Were it not for the taillights of the car, the opening sequence of Stefan Ruzowitzky's chilly new thriller Deadfall might as well be in black and white. Those taillights flash red, and so does the blood of the driver when the car hits an icy patch and flips over. Brother and sister Addison and Liza (Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde) are the only survivors of the crash—and the only ones left to split the cash from the Indian casino heist they'd been escaping from.

Deadfall has nearly all the makings of a traditional film noir. There's an initiating crime, a femme fatale luring in a hapless mark, and a ruthless killer who is her real partner. A quick rewrite could move this from the snowpack of northern Michigan to an urban environment of gloomy night and shadow. But Ruzowitzky demonstrates how sometimes a blank, white backdrop can be an even more appropriately isolating setting for a crime thriller than inky black alleys.

Overall, Deadfall is kind of a mess. The machinations of the plot show their gears all-too-readily, as writer Zach Dean's script requires a number of storylines to all converge conveniently at the farmhouse of retired sheriff Chet (Kris Kristofferson) and his wife June (Sissy Spacek) on Thanksgiving. Addison and Liza separately find their way there, Liza with her gullible mark (and Chet and June's son) Jay (Charlie Hunnam). A deputy played by Kate Mara also shows up at the house on an entirely different errand only to find that the killer whom her father the sheriff (Treat Williams) has been after all day (Addison) has taken the family hostage. Hopefully, someone in this collision of coincidence bought a lottery ticket.

But what Ruzowitzky gets right is the sense of desperation imparted by that snowbound setting, which follows in a tradition of frozen stories of murder, crime, and betrayal that swipe out noir's suggestive expressionism for the revealing contrasts of the whiteout.

Classic film noirs used their dark settings as direct reflections of their subject matter, as well as to create the sense of their heroes getting lost. They tapped into our natural fears of the dark in the same way that horror movies do, creating tension through our instinctual sense that there are dangerous things lurking in the shadows.

But just as instinctual is the drive to seek warmth and shelter from the cold. When Addison walks alone through a snow-covered field, shivering in an inadequate coat and lacking gloves as a blizzard approaches, the danger isn't unknown or theoretical; it's bright, enveloping, bone-chilling, and it represents certain death unless he can find help.

As anyone who's seen the wood-chipper scene from Fargo knows, blood sprayed on snow is as striking as a Jackson Pollock canvas.

The Coen brothers' 1996 Fargo is perhaps the greatest example of a snowbound crime story. Characters in that movie weren't even really in any pressing danger from the bleak landscapes of the northern plains in winter, but just placing them amid the snowpack is enough. Think of William H. Macy's Jerry walking across that empty, icy parking lot to his lone car after receiving some bad news. Or Steve Buscemi's Carl, burying a briefcase of money in the snow at a random fencepost along miles of empty, snow-swallowed highway. These scenes are even more lonely and desperate than the equivalent ones would be in the dark. When we're in the dark, we can hide just as well as the monsters; the snow shines a spotlight on us, alone on a vast bright expanse, all the sound being swallowed by the landscape. It highlights our insignificance.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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