This Carter Burwell article was written by Adam Hawker, a GIGsoup contributor
Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Brothers classic neo-noir Fargo is itself a masterpiece. Continuing a collaboration that has lasted for all but one (Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? being the exception) of the Coen Brothers films, Burwell’s sparse, atmospheric orchestration perfectly matches and enhances the tone of the film.
The main motif of the score is taken from the Norwegian folk song “The Lost Sheep”. This, of course, is absolutely in keeping the bleak, wintery vistas and the Nordic heritage of the film’s Minnesota setting. This folk style also lends the score a dark fairy tale quality, which hints at the morality tale at the centre of the narrative.
Its often in exterior moments of violence or discovery when the score suddenly bursts into life, building to wonderful string laddened crescendos which add weight and tension to the on screen action. In the now infamous wood chipper scene, as Officer Gunderson searches the outside of the cabin, all we can hear is her crumpled footsteps in the snow and the distant sound of the wood chipper. As she moves closer to the sound and we, and she, realise the horror of Grimsrud loading the body into the chipper, spreading blood and viscera across the snow, the music swells overpowering the sound of the chipper as Grimsrud attempts to escape across the snow and Gunderson shoots him down.
Its clear that, like the Coen Brothers, Burwell was inspired by the classic noir films of the 30s, 40s and 50s. In particular films such as Kiss Me Deadly, Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep with their sweeping orchestral scores. Songs such as “Big City” by Merle Haggard and Boy George’s cover of “These Boots Were Made For Walking” don’t appear on the soundtrack and are always diegetic in the film. Either being heard on radios in the background or, as in the club scene, as live performance whilst the kidnap plan and its fallout are discussed. These songs afford a mundane, natural counterpoint to the score’s dramatic moments, implying that what the characters say is less important than what they do.
The influence of Burwell’s score can currently be seen upon Jeff Russo’s superb score for the Fargo television series. His deliberate use of an Eastern European orchestra and cinematic style feels entirely in sync with the film score. Russo balances the sense of isolation and vastness of the scenary with the intimacy and brutality of the narrative wonderfully, just as Burwell did before him.