Movies like Deadfall and Fargo show that the white of ice can be as powerful a filmmaking tool as shadow.
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.
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.
The Coens' film also exploits the other advantage that white has over black in crime stories: blood. As anyone who's seen the wood-chipper scene from Fargo knows, blood sprayed on snow is as striking as a Jackson Pollock canvas.
These are hardly isolated examples. Robert Altman explored the effect of placing familiar, dark, genre images in a cold, white setting with both his western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and his 1979 post-apocalyptic science fiction film, Quintet. In Snow Angels, David Gordon Green's grim character study of desperation and eventual crime in a small town, the cold and snow is practically a psychological accessory to murder. Later the same year, Courtney Duncan's Frozen River used the frigid winters of far upstate New York with similar effectiveness. The creeping dread of inevitable tragedy in Sam Raimi's quietly suspenseful A Simple Plan feels like slowly freezing to death in the cold Minnesota woods where it was filmed.
These films often employ the contrast of their cold exteriors with the warmth of fireplace-heated interiors. They exploit our comfort in fuzzy sweaters and the golden glow of woodfires before casting us back out into the chill. That's one of the things Ruzowitzky does best in Deadfall, making the movie run hot and cold as a tension-and-release device to heighten the thrills, before eventually putting the final, most dangerous scene in what was previously a warm and homey space.
The ostensible peacefulness of a snowy woodland is a perfect environment for dark cinematic thrills. The quiet and the pillowy softness is seductive, lulling us into a false sense of security, even if a more primal place in our brains knows the danger it holds. When a director can effectively tap into that contrast, the serenity of the snow can hold just as much menace as the darkest corner of the seediest urban street.