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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.

No. 3: “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

“A man can convince anyone he’s somebody else, but never himself.”
~~Verbal Kint

Most films are more about what leads up to the finale than the finale itself — the how, not the what. Nobody ever told Bryan Singer that, and so he directed “The Usual Suspects,” a labyrinthine teeth-kicker of a crime thriller where the end is what matters. Everything else is window dressing … but it so happens that Singer is one very fine interior decorator.

There’s no sense letting slip even one more peep about that ending, except to say that it does NOT inspire lukewarm reactions. (Think shock, uncontrollable rage, humiliation, disgust, abject hopelessness and self-pity — a veritable font of negative human emotions.) Best to defer to the Fight Club rulebook when it comes to those last five minutes of “The Usual Suspects”; in fact, don’t let anyone talk about any part of the movie in your presence, since there’s no such thing as an “insignificant detail” in this one. The less you know, the better. Understood?

With Act 3 off the docket, what’s left to discuss? Well, plenty, thanks to Singer’s remarkable eye for details and Christopher McQuarrie’s twisty, smarter-than-smart script. Herein lies the paradox: Although the end is paramount, the lead-up is where all the fun is. If you can call murder, mayhem and utter befuddlement “fun.” (Note: I do.) Have a chew of the setup, explained brilliantly by the movie’s tagline: “Five criminals. One lineup. No coincidence.” When a truck is hijacked, New York police haul in five familiar faces: McManus (Stephen Baldwin), the loose cannon con; Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus’ partner; Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a crooked ex-cop whose cool facade hides his ruthless nature; Hockney (Kevin Pollak), who has two interests: money and himself; and Verbal (Kevin Spacey), a short con operator with cerebal palsy. The five decide to exact some sweet revenge on the cops, but the plan leads to an entanglement with Keyser Soze, a mythic, faceless figure with limitless power and unfathomable influence. Pulled in to investigate the revenge plot’s spiraling aftermath is U.S. Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), a smug man quite certain he’s in control of everything who’s none too happy to discover he knows absolutely nothing. He’s just a poor, clueless schmuck like the rest of us.

If this all sounds very high concept, that’s because, uh, it is, and arrogantly so. McQuarrie’s shooting for the ionosphere with this script, which contains so many turns that it takes multiple viewings to sort them out (and maybe not even then). The concept of linear action? Ha! Constant vigilence and attention to detail are requirements, not suggestions, just to follow along. But that’s hardly a flaw, since directors rarely assume this level of intelligence of their audiences.

Yet don’t go thinking Singer’s going to reward all this effort. If anything, his interest lies in teasing us, playing Chesire Cat to our Alice. He gives us no pieces, then the wrong ones (which sometimes turn out to be right), then the right ones (at the wrong time), then all of them tossed together like some crazy jumbled puzzle salad. It might be maddening if “The Usual Suspects” weren’t so darn cool-looking. The cinematography, with its looming darkness and shaded-just-so corners that conceal key details, adds to the tension beautifully. 

That whole “cool-looking” idea extends to the actors, who are cherry-picked. There was a time before Stephen Baldwin started boardin’ for the Lord and filed for bankruptcy. That time was 1995, and since then he has not come close to topping McManus. Benicio del Toro plays Fenster as something of a comedian, sporting an inexplicable accent that ends up being the film’s funniest running gag. Byrne, who’s never had to try very hard to be the coolest cat in the room, works the seething pit of inner rage angle perfectly, while Palminteri acts as a mirror for the viewers. And all take a backseat to Spacey, who turns in a mindhole-blowing performance as Verbal Kint. He reminds us that we must never, ever understimate him.

Make that mistake with “The Usual Suspects” and see how far it gets you.