The “so-called true” story follows car salesman Jerry Lundegaard from Minnesota (William H. Macy), who hires 2 mercenaries (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, planning to get his hands on the ransom her wealthy father would pay to free her. Needless to say, things don’t work out as planned, as the very pregnant sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress) investigates the crime.
Not a true story
Like the entire film, the story has a deceptive simplicity to it, and the deception is right there at the beginning when the “This Is a True Story” caption comes up and stays that much too long to become questionable. And in actuality, the film is not based on one real event that happened in Minnesota in 1987; it’s more of an assortment of various factual events expertly blended into one narrative.
The opening scene sets the film’s mood and pace. The black screen turns completely white, slowly revealing a car driving on a heavily snowy road accompanied by a haunting and dramatic musical theme based on a Norwegian folk song. That sets off the snowy, nordic and lyrical vibe while also adding an ominous and dramatic feel.
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Shot selection & framing
While the camera work is pretty basic and static throughout the film, DP Roger Deakins‘ masterful shot selection is highly evocative, deepening the viewer’s understanding of the characters’ relationships.
For example, in scene #2, when Jerry talks to the mercenaries, he’s filmed in a near close-up while Buscemi and Stormare are shot from more of a distance. This gives them a position of power over Jerry, as we see every nervous expression of the poor little guy.
Another place where the shot selection is impactful is in the 2nd meeting between Marge and Jerry. When the sheriff questions Jerry about the number of cars in his lot, he grows more and more nervous. Jerry is shot in close-up, setting his inferiority to Marge, who is seen from over the shoulder. The acting in the film is truly superb.
On the flip side, the Coen brothers use the long shot and extreme long-shot to show Jerry’s insignificance, cement his loser status and convey the feeling of loneliness and alienation.
In the 3rd scene, the close-up shot is used the other way around, with Jerry shot in the background, blurred, while his powerful and aggressively tense father-in-law watches a hockey game, shot at a low angle close-up. This establishes Jerry’s inferiority and insignificance to his father-in-law and corroborates what Jerry told the mercenaries in the scene prior to that.
While the story is supposedly about Jerry’s crime gone awry, Marge is the film’s heart and soul. She is as straightforward as they come, simple, amiable and loving. The Coen brothers establish Marge as the hero and moral center of the film by making her the only character with a meaningful human connection. In every scene of Marge with her husband, Norm Son-of-a-Gunderson, they are always shot together when they talk to each other, while in everyone else’s dialogues, each character is shot separately.
That’s a wrap
You don’t need fancy camera movement to create an impactful film or video. Careful shot selection and composition can go a long way in adding depth and enhancing your film’s impact on the audience. Until next time, stay creative!