Blood Simple
review by
David Luty, 7 July 2000

About halfway through Blood Simple, a woman walks into the backroom of a bar, sees something she has trouble wrapping her arms around, and slowly falls backward into her bed at home. Without a cut, a dissolve, any visible effect, she drops, with the camera locked into her face at a fixed angle, into another setting entirely. Compressing not just time, but also space, it's a deliciously clever shot, boy is it clever, but it also communicates something - the inability of the character to stop thinking about what she's witnessed.

And that, in a nutshell, is Blood Simple. Because it's a movie about characters thinking, more than it is about them feeling, it was criticized by some for being too clever by half and detached, and praised by others for the way it utilized a delirious visual and narrative inventiveness in revving up a noir yarn. But at this stage in the game, perhaps the most notable aspect of Blood Simple is that so few have seen it, despite its pedigree and its quality. Hopefully that will change with its polishing and re-release in theaters this month.

Most folks know the Coens for Fargo, and Fargo also happens to be the filmmaking brothers' most direct descendant of their first directorial effort. Both involve the hiring of a criminal by a desperate citizen to hurt a loved one, and in both films the job goes very, very wrong. Fargo is the more quirky and emotional of the two, but Blood Simple wins hands down for sheer dramatic ingenuity. Blood Simple is to most thrillers what a cube is to a square - its dimensions are expanded. Where in most examples of the genre the audience looks over the shoulder of a single point of view, Blood Simple asks you to consider four differing perspectives, often at once. The greatness of the film comes from how gracefully it pulls this off, never once becoming as strenuous or gimmicky as it should be.

The Coens are certainly eggheads, brainiacs who, especially in their first four works, were obsessed with the workings of the intellectual organ. The fact that they explored this interest with such funhouse diversity is a testament to their often awesome talent. In the zany domestic comedy Raising Arizona, the main character, after learning he and his wife couldn't have a child of their own and kidnapping one for themselves, experiences such guilt and self-loathing that he wills into existence a big, burly, and very mean physical manifestation of those feelings. In the gorgeously lyrical gangster yarn Miller's Crossing, underboss Tom Regan is a man so adept at strategically thinking his way through the labyrinth of loyalties and deceit marking a gang war that he's lost his heart in the bargain. And, of course, in Barton Fink, the title character spends most of the movie living, breathing, and fretting directly inside a mind. It just isn't his own.

And first, but certainly not least, is Blood Simple, in which the minds of the four leads are as perpetually and oxymoronically busy and static as the ubiquitous ceiling fans hovering over their oppressively steamy Texas milieu. Blood Simple is about confusion under pressure, without ever, and this is the hard part, seeming the least bit confused itself. The Coens have that intangible storytelling quality of complete and utter confidence that blesses most all of their work (with the exception of bits of The Hudsucker Proxy and most of The Big Lebowski). From the very start, where M. Emmet Walsh recites a brief, gleefully acidic homily to the moral desert of Texas life, Blood Simple is utterly assured in its every frame. Such poise and virtuosity puts you in the front seat as you observe these characters trying to find their way out of a maze they sometimes don't even know they're in.

It begins like many a B-movie noir thriller. A quiet, basically decent bartender (John Getz) gets involved with a married woman (Frances McDormand) whose husband (Dan Hedaya), the owner of the dive, is not so decent, and not so quiet. The jilted, angry spouse takes action, hiring a sleazy hitman (M. Emmet Walsh) to ice them both. Complications ensue, but they are not the complications you'd most likely expect, and they certainly aren't staged in any way that resembles the familiar. Besides being so elegant in its twists and turns while at the same time doling out more than a few delicious surprises, Blood Simple's plot is staged with a combination of visual ferocity and restraint that yields one bravura sequence after another. None of them will be described here.

The acting is pure noir perfection. Frances McDormand, in her first screen role, plays the errant wife with a doe-eyed innocence that seems too good to be true, while talented character actor John Getz (also in Cronenberg's The Fly) is effectively stoic and bewildered. Hedaya is the picture of seething menace, and then there's the wonderful M. Emmet Walsh in the role of his lifetime, all fattened-up smug self-satisfaction in his faded canary yellow suit and oversized cowboy hat, playing his thug as a child giddy with the freedom of an unformed conscience.

McDormand, who would later become wife to Joel, sister-in-law to Ethan, and Oscar winner in their greatest success, made her feature debut in Blood Simple. As did composer Carter Burwell, the greatest film composer never recognized for his work whose rueful, eerie score in Blood Simple marked the beginning of a long, fruitful career with the brothers. Add to that list of feature debuts Barry Sonnenfeld, the cinematographer turned director who had great fun developing cunning jerry-rigged camera effects here in his first job and who shot the delicately beautiful Miller's Crossing for his last, before becoming the director of mildly entertaining big-effects pictures.

Despite all the people who got their start on Blood Simple, the directors included, it would be impossible for the unknowing audience member to view it as a rookie project. As the Coens would certainly agree, and as they show here with this down-and-dirty noir masterpiece, being a rookie is nothing more than a state of mind.

Directed by:
Joel Coen

John Getz
Frances McDormand
Dan Hedaya
M. Emmet Walsh
Samm-Art Williams
Deborah Neumann
Raquel Gavia
Van Brooks
Senor Marco
William Creamer
Loren Bivens
Bob McAdams
Shannon Sedwick
Nancy Ginger
William Preston Robertson

Written by:
Ethan Coen
Joel Coen




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