Dailies: The Snowy Western Noir

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As you know, I have a fondness for westerns, but I also quite like the noir genre. (For intelligent coverage of both sorts of films, you have to check out Canadian Cinephile.) And it seems that contemporary film has begun to explore the key overlaps in the two genres.

In a sense, the noir picked up where the western had left off in the early part of the twentieth century: the exploration of a moral wasteland. The difference, of course, was the setting: the wild west was replaced by the urban jungle. By the time we get to the 1960s, we already begin to see the blending of the genres. We need not look any further than Once Upon a Time in the West (see my feature on this masterpiece): the plot is concerned with murder, intrigue, and institutional corruption. And, of course, the figure of the outlaw has often signalled the corruption of law enforcement.

Many westerns begin similarly: The Searchers (1956), Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and Clint Eastwood’s own Leone-inspired films (High Plains Drifter is perhaps one of the best examples). Even these older productions had the intrigue, murder, and fascination with corruption that dominates so many noir films going back to the 1950s.

Now compare these with the openings of No Country for Old Men, Fargo the film, and Fargo the TV series: the westerns and the Coen (or Coen-inspired) productions involve the arrival of mysterious and malevolent strangers into a bleak and cruel landscape. (See my previous feature, which discusses the links between the three.) The convergence point between the contemporary noir and the old western seems to hinge on this return to a more desolate landscape.

In these contemporary films, the horse has been replaced by a car, and the pistol with higher calibre arsenal (or, in the case of No Country, frighteningly inventive “guns”). And the desert wasteland has been replaced by a wintry one. Consider how both the Fargo film and series begin: an old car (maybe a Chevy Caprice?) barreling down a snow-covered highway.

Snow itself functions effectively to evoke loneliness, cruelty, and a stark contrast for blood-splatter. As Ian Buckwalter notes in his terrific piece for The Atlantic, “Snow Is the New Noir: In Praise of Wintery Crime Films,” “sometimes a blank, white backdrop can be an even more appropriately isolating setting for a crime thriller than inky black alleys.”

So what can we call these Coen creations? Snowy western noirs?

I wonder if we can also include the likes of Affliction (1997) or A Simple Plan (1998) or Winter’s Bone (2010).


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