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No. 11: “Blood Simple” (1984)

“If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.” ~~Ray

What is it about best-laid plans crumbling to hell that fascinates us so endlessly? Is it the thrill of watching greed and lust pollute the simplest of schemes, careful blueprints drawn up with what seems like attention to detail? Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe there’s something comforting about maintaining distance, assuming a stance of superiority that allows us to say — and believe — “I’d never let that happen to me.”

The perverse magic of Joel and Ethan Coen’s stylish, enormously disquieting “Blood Simple,” what shakes us to the core, is that the opposite is true: Easy plots like this get dreamed up by normal people, and they unspool in crazy ways that boggle the mind. For every hairline fissure that surfaces, there are hundreds more underneath, slowly working their way to the top. The bitter end, the Coens understand, is always so much closer than we think.

It is the illusion of control that sets in motion the undoing of most every player in “Blood Simple,” which begins with a seemingly simple plan (code for “something’s about to hit a fan”): Slimy bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife Abby (Frances McDormand in her first big-screen role) is having an affair, so he hires Private Detective Loren Visser (a skin-crawlingly good M. Emmet Walsh) to tail her. When Marty discovers Abby is bedding Ray (John Getz), one of his bartenders, he’s glad to pony up dough for a hit. Marty’s out for blood. Problem is, Visser’s out for money — as much as he can get — and he knows the location of his client’s safe. That was Marty’s first mistake.

Since this is film noir, the initial mistake leads to another … which leads to another … which unleashes a slow-building hurricane of potential and totally unforseen complications. Suddenly nobody, not even Abby, so wide-eyed in her protests of “I ain’t done nothin’ funny,” is able to walk away from this mess without making bloody getaway tracks. There are dead bodies and very-nearly-dead bodies and mistaken identities. The whole business might be downright comical if it wasn’t so damn sleazy.

But wait! This is Coen brothers film noir, so comedy abounds. “Blood Simple” is where the Coens introduced their brand of nefarious tomfoolery, so the jokes sneak up on us like Jack the Ripper. Consider Ray’s summary of what happened on a midnight trip: “He was alive when I buried him.” Gulp. Or Visser’s response to Marty, who says the Greeks beheaded bad news carriers: “Gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.” Yipes. Humor doesn’t get much blacker (note the song that announces the final credits). Barbed observations like these are the kind that clump uncomfortably in the throat, yet they spotlight human folly too good not to laugh at: Every man thinks he’s gripping the reins, and not one of them actually is. The actors time these lines faultlessly, with Walsh, who sweats menace, and Hedaya, perfectly cast as the fiendish Marty, doing heavy lifting. McDormand, all innocence, shows early promise she’s more than made good on. And Getz might have the best job of all: He shows us how easy it is for the straight man to nosedive into depravity.

More brilliance reveals itself as “Blood Simple” rumbles toward the finish. The staggering cinematography, courtesy of Barry Sonnenfield, transforms the dusty Texas landscape into a character with its own motivations, its own agenda. The desert turns an unforgiving eye on these miscreants, offers not a moment of solace. Behind the camera, the Coens do their part to make their film a dark visual masterpiece. They amplify that desolate feeling with artful, pointed shots: a blood drip here, a thumping ceiling fan there, a close-up of dripping sink pipes. Matter of fact, that last shot pins the film’s thesis, squirming, to the wall: If you’re dumb enough to think something’s just what it seems, prepare to suffer the consequences.

10 Responses

  1. have to say M Carter, and you know I never dish out praise when it isnt deserved, but that is a terrificly well-written review, really good read. and i havent even seen the film. At this rate youll have your top 100 done by Christmas.

    • Aw, thanks! McG, I’m printing out this comment and framing. A nice frame, too, not that leftover one from my last trip to Dollar General. Writing reviews of movies I really love makes me all twitchy and nervous because I feel like I’ll never do ’em justice.

      But yes, you must see “Blood Simple.” It’s their first film, but aside from “No Country for Old Men” I’d have to say it’s the Coen brothers’ best. Hard to believe this was their debut.

      • Ross seems to be saying “I haven’t seen this film” or “I just saw this film for the first time” a lot recently. It makes me wonder if he actually watches films!

        Joking aside, it is so hard to say one Coen brothers film is better than another as they are all so different. I first saw this in the early 90’s after seeing Raising Arizona and Barton Fink. Blood simple and Miller’s Crossing had passed my by. I loved them both when I finally saw them. Their only film I don’t like is The Ladykillers, but I went into that with the wrong frame of mind being a big fan of the original.

      • I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who liked “Ladykillers.” Or “Intolerable Cruelty.” But in a weird way, the fact that these guys make stinkers every few years just because they can makes me like them that much more.

  2. Every time I watch Blood Simple I spend the whole time thinking that it’s a technically astounding (especially for a true independent feature) but emotionally empty piece of noir revivalism. But when I reach the end, well, I still think that it’s true to some extent, but the pieces come together so brilliantly that I remember why I fell in love with it in the first place. I’ve adopted Ebert’s Stanton-Walsh rule because it’s largely true (though I’d also add Dean Stockwell to the list of character actors who improve what they appear in), and this has to be Walsh’s finest hour. Every time I watch it he surprises me with his lethargic wiseass that belies a horrific amorality.

    I don’t suppose you have the original DVD, do you? (the cover is the one you used for your photo). It has, after the Spinal Tap non-Criterion DVD, the funniest in-character commentary I’ve ever heard. The Coens hired a friend to basically spoof the commentaries that you’d find on, say, Criterion DVDs that are so in-depth they suck the fun out of the movie. It’s just 90 minutes of the most bizarre made-up behind-the-scenes facts and it’s glorious.

    • ‘Fraid I only have the reissue, Jake, and not the original — now you’re making me wish I did! It’s on Amazon, but it’s ridiculously expensive.

      Walsh gave me the heeby-jeebies big-time in “Blood Simple.” He was so skeezy and slimy that every time he uttered a line I felt the need to shower. Now THAT’S good acting.

  3. Probably one of the best directorial debuts of all-time. This film kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time, but mostly the cinematography that shows that not only the camera can be a character as well. Good review!

    • I’ll second that — still can’t fathom making a movie like this the first time out of the gate. Wish I’d been 18 back in 1984 so I could have seen it in theaters. What a trip that must have been! And who knew the Coens could only get better (excluding, of course, “Intolerable Cruelty”)?

  4. […] “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as […]

  5. […] “True Grit” 2010 shifts the spotlight to Mattie and her quest, thrusting Steinfeld front and center. She displays the same fearlessness as her character, infusing Mattie with determination to burn. Hers is the breakout performance of 2010, maybe the decade. Mattie strikes out alone into the Oklahoma terrain in search of someone to help her hunt down Chaney. Her only stipulation? She gets to do the killing. She hears of a local legend, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a full-time drunkard/sometime bounty hunter rumored to have “true grit,” and offers him a reward for catching her father’s killer. Cogburn mistakes Mattie’s youth for naïveté at first, but her persistence and her money win him over. The two set out for Indian territory, where Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, with a squeaky third wheel: conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, sinister and funny), who’s chased Chaney all the way from Texas. Because LaBoeuf is everything Cogburn is not (articulate, sober, possessed of soap), it’s a mismatch that produces some big laughs. That patented Bridges mumble makes off-the-cuffers into one-liners. Cogburn’s assessment of a violently botched shootout in which LaBoeuf is injured – “That didn’t pan out” — is golden. The line belongs to Portis, who wrote the novel, but damn if it wouldn’t sound right at home in “Blood Simple.” […]

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