• Oh now this is fascinating, because what keeps Collateral on-beat and pushes Fargo off is the same thing: these are both noirs (to some extent, with the same plot of Ordinary Guy Pulled into Crime) that render their cities with precise detail. The differences are that L. A. is the definitive city of noir and Fargo/Brainerd/Minneapolis isn’t, and that Mann goes straight into genre tropes and the Coens veer around them. This is a great example of how different authors can work “downright archetypal crime plots” into something completely personal and unique.

    • Drunk Napoleon

      Exactly. And what elevates Mann beyond cliche is that he isn’t just copying genre tropes for the sake of genre tropes; he’s choosing every detail because that reflects the reality of the story he’s choosing to tell. Vincent doesn’t wear a suit because assassins are supposed to wear suits; he wears a grey suit because it makes him invisible in a specific way that lets him carry around a briefcase, and that suit is a Hong Kong cut because he was in Hong Kong and presumably didn’t have time to buy a new suit before he landed.

      Conversely, the Coens aren’t subverting genre for the sake of genre, they’re simply reflecting a reality they know really well and using it like a spice in a typical genre stew. I’d love to explore the nature of genre subversion, because it’s a very popular part of critical discourse in nerd circles.

      • Picking up on that last line: it’s as pointless to subvert for the sake of subversion as it is to copy for the sake of copying. Both Mann and the Coens do what they do for a reason beyond the genre itself. You could add to this list Edgar Wright and Shane Black, who copy and subvert at the same time, because they love this shit and want to have fun with it, and they respect it too. I suppose the common element here is that no one feels superior to the genre, everyone who does it right comes from a place of understanding the genre.

        One fun difference: a great genre subversion reveals its greatness on the first viewing, but a great in-genre work reveals it on the second. I never fully appreciate Mann’s films on the first viewing because, again, our brains remember more than they perceive. The first time through, all I’m getting is a good genre movie. (The great exception here is Ali, which wants to do so much it overflows the banks of genre at every bend.) It takes a second viewing to start catching, as you and Mann sez, “the accumulation of detail” that makes the movie distinct and alive.

        • Drunk Napoleon

          I guess that’s one of the reasons a work like Fargo ends up a noted classic, and something like Collateral or The Shield ends up criminally underrated.

          • Yessir. Critical buzzwords of our time are “challenging,” “subversive,” “transcending,” and “shrimp toast.” The Shield and Collateral ain’t subverting shit. They’re just great, is all.

        • thesplitsaber

          ‘Oh god does this mean i have to watch Public Enemies again? please no!’

    • Son of Griff

      FARGO actually documents, using the crime story as a micro study, the infiltration of the noir universe into the pastoral setting on a larger scale. By using multiple points of view to interweave of inductive and deductive reasoning patterns of its characters’ modes of problem solving, The film reveals the American enlightenment’s impact in redefining the relationship between rural and urban spaces. While Its juxtaposition of eccentric details threatens to derail the relentless economy of its narrative structure into digressive anecdotal quirks, the temptation is often held in check by visual compositions that, by the sheer negativity of their “negative” space, keep grounding the setting in the rigidity of the noir universe. As in INSOMNIA, the presence of white functions with the intent of the shadows of noir, signifying an absence of vision and the failure of subjectivity. The Coen’s infer to infer the consequences of an environmental holocaust far darker than Al Gore could imagine. More importantly, The historical relationship between the city and the town constitutes an evil of such magnitude that its heroes, in the end, don’t even comprehend.

  • Smapti Jones

    Nice analysis! I’d add one more important contrasting feature between these movies: the Coens have always been good at writing female characters, whereas with Mann – probably our finest cinebro director (I say that both with love and irritation) – women in his movies never rise above the role of ornamentation.

    • One of the biggest disappointments of Blackhat was that after Miami Vice, where Elizabeth Rodriguez and Naomi Harris got to be part of the team, Viola Davis and Wei Tang were only professionals for the first act and after that, both of them were there basically to admire Chris Hemsworth.

      • silverwheel

        I’ve elaborated elsewhere on how disappointed I was by Blackhat in general, but the way that Tang lost all her intelligence and turned into a sappy cliche the minute she slept with Hemsworth was probably what disappointed me the most. Some of the blame certainly goes to the first-time screenwriter, who made every rookie mistake in the book, but more should go toward Mann, who inexplicably went with it without ordering serious rewrites (if the finished product actually was the result of a serious rewrite, then I cannot even fathom how bad the original must have been). I mean, for God’s sake, Hemsworth actually had to stop her from running into oncoming bullet fire during the surprise ambush that gets everyone killed, apparently because women be gettin’ too emotional, amirite guys? This from a supposedly savvy, streetsmart woman who previously criticized Hemsworth for not thinking quickly enough, but now she’s just going to run toward the explosion and the gunfire and Hemsworth has to be the strong man and stop her from doing that. And it’s clear that she’s not trying to rescue anyone, she knows they’re dead and is just too weepy to have even the basic minimum of intelligence and awareness. Morgan Davis Foehl, go fuck yourself.

    • silverwheel

      Not sure that I agree with that, especially because Miami Vice had truly badass female characters. Cora in Last Of The Mohicans and Justine, Eady, and Charlene in Heat are absolutely not mere ornamentation or plot devices. They are not as critical to the story as the male characters, but they are important, fully realized, and not pushovers.

  • ZoeZ

    Fargo pulls off the rare trick of being a “yes, but” movie–yes, it’s a typical hardboiled plot, but it’s set in nice, quirky Minnesota–that indulges its distinctiveness without defanging its story. Too often, introducing a fundamental joke into the structure can make movies feel like the director is reminding you that it’s fine not to take this seriously, but Fargo never feels like that. The weight of the characters’ actions are real.

    And this whole essay has me thinking about the role of detail in both films (and that’s some great writing on Vincent’s suit and his use of the Mozambique Drill in particular). Maybe literature uses details to make its characters and place distinctive and drama uses them to make its characters and place specific.