The Language of Color and Light
Words and pictures are the fundamental method of communication within a film. They propel plot and provide a way for the audience to understand the thoughts of the characters. However, one of the most important methods of communication within Fargo and No Country For Old Men is the use of color and light, providing commentary on justice, morality, and revenge. The style, or the continued habits of directing used by the Coen brothers, in which they use color and light, transcends all of their movies, and provides further reinforcement of the thematic narrative.
Fargo begins with a barren wasteland, covered in a white and blanched snow. It provides little scenery, aside from the tall, unsettling statue of Paul Bunyan over the city of . Snow, a single component of the environment, provides 90% of the color in the outdoor scenes, blanketing the city in white. White is often used in literature to portray justice, innocence, purity, and virginity. However, throughout the movie, blood is splattered all over the snow, and nature itself, often while a character is doing something immoral such as shredding the body of his partner down a shredder or shooting a cop and killing all the bystanders. The bright red on the dulled out white color of the snow creates contrast not only in color but in meaning. Red, especially that of blood, is seen as violence, hatred, and anger. What is the purpose of putting seemingly different meanings onto one shot? It shows the inter mixings that these quality traits can have, with the snow stained with the blood of many immoral characters. Margie spills the blood of Gaear while she shoots him, and Jean’s father shoots Carl in the face. The Coen brothers imply that no human beings can be perfectly moral, and those that break the law may not be the muscular, gun carrying, tattooed thugs that media portrays. Jerry, is the most immoral character within this movie, despite being the weakest character in brute strength. He willingly risks his wife’s life, leaving his son motherless, leaving his father in law for dead, and condoning the deaths of witnesses. In the words of Margie, it was all for “Just a little bit of money.”. His actions caused the death of many people, yet he seems anxious and surprised when the people he hired that they killed other people. He not only hired criminals, he didn’t think for a single second about the possible consequences. Yet, despite being the cause of so many deaths, he is simply a middle class, shifty car salesman. The common perception of criminal masterminds is completely different with Jerry Lundegaard. Misperceptions are evident within No Country for Old Men, in where the most dangerous man within the film, Chigurh, is at first ignored, or talked to as a normal person. The man he kills in the beginning of the film while jacking his car, or the threat of death to the gasoline station worker all begin this way. And as such, he is able to murder many innocent people with little to no resistance.
Within the movie No Country for Old Men, the setting is yet another bland, barren wasteland. Instead, it is desert, and the land is a brownish orange. Little plant life is found, filling the shots with a singular color. As Llewelyn Moss walks through the battlefield of the drug cartel, blood is splattered on the ground, dogs are dead, and bodies are sprawled all over. All this went down in the secluded, beautiful landscape of the desert of Texas. Drugs and dealers are mixed in with a quiet and serene setting, and follow the same ideas of how the mixing of criminals with beauty of nature. This is even further enforced as we find the money a dead man sitting underneath a large tree, the only tree within the entire desert that we have seen. The brown trunk and green leaves provide new colors to a singular, blended landscape. Even the colors of the trucks of both Llewelyn Moss and the drug dealers are a tan, brownish color. In this moment, the audience is reminded the Llewelyn Moss is not more moral than these drug dealers. Even though he is stealing from drug lords, he is placing his wife and entire family in danger. Once again, the motive is money, and the money brings death to everyone Llewelyn cares about. His death is paralleled with the dead drug dealers, sprawled out in a button up shirt with jeans and cowboy boots. He is brought to the same level that they were in the drug deal gone wrong, blood splattered on the tan carpet, reminiscent of the desert ground. The morality of Llewelyn is no better, despite being the protagonist of this movie.
However, color and setting is not the only way the Coen brothers use to describe morality. Throughout their movies, light is used in order to show justice, as well as revenge and retribution. In both movies, light is shone into the eyes of the perpetrator of morals. However, in Fargo, the thugs are pulled over by a cop after they have kidnapped Jean. The cop’s face is never shown as he interrogates them while shining a light into the eyes of the thugs. His facelessness represents blind justice, and the fair prosecution of criminals. He did not kill them outright, but instead asked them to step out of the car. The Coen brothers show that justice can come in many ways. In No Country for Old Men Llewelyn Moss’s eyes are shone a bright light within them as he is being pursued by unknown drivers in a truck. This time, he is being shot with no interrogation, despite light being shone into his eyes as well. As he is being shot, the headlights of the truck follow him as they pursue him. Justice is now taken the form of revenge, and the light is indistinguishable from Fargo, despite taking a completely different take on justice. However, there is one large difference between the producers of the light. The morally correct one, the police officer, is killed as he is about to discover the crimes of the men he pulled over, while the drug dealers are going to kill Llewelyn and leave unscathed.
The Coen brothers bring a sense of helplessness for those with the best morals within their movies. They show that those that must follow the rules are the most vulnerable to the those who disregard them. Chigurh embodies this idea, using other people desire to help to push forward his own agenda. As he blows up the car in front of the pharmacy he is able to steal drugs as those that witnessed the explosion scramble to stop the fire. In Fargo , Jean can only find the area where Jean is kidnapped after she realizes that people in the world are not all truthful and kind. Mike Yanagita opened her eyes, and provided reason to interrogate Jerry once again. Setting provides meaning one more time. It’s no coincidence that the location of both these movies have people who put such an emphasis on hospitality. It is not placed in L.A. or New York, where the people have been characterized as cold and focused only on their career. Instead, the setting is in the tight knit, small communities of Texas and North Dakota.
This helplessness can only be a message to the audience, to never underestimate the things humanity can do. True good never comes without bad, and the bad may very well end a life. However, it begs the question if every human should treat each other with care and caution, devoid of trust. In order to prevent evil, humanity and its social aspect must be lost. Within Fargo and No Country for Old Men, the films tackle morality personally, and within the people around us. Their constant lighting and color style that repeatedly appears within their films provide symbolic commentary towards the futility of trying to prevent evil.