Unsung Gems – ‘Blood Simple ‘

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Blood Simple
Directed by Joel Coen
Screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
USA, 1984

Love them or loathe them, the Coen Brothers are indisputably an institution in Hollywood cinema, lone wolves of distinctive style and tone who continue to put out top standard films never as straightforward as they seemingly should do. The signature brand of farcical situations, gallows humor and bleakly cynical philosophy that Ethan and Joel sign off each of their works with has become just as imitable, and just as irreplaceable, as Scorcese beat editing or Tarantino small talk.

To find their purest work, one merely has to go back to their bow as fully fledged filmmakers, 1984’s Blood Simple. Named for a Dashiell Hammett coinage and putting an authentically idiotic slant on classic amoral hardboiled noir, the duo’s debut has since become the clear inspiration behind numerous pretenders in the years since. Unlike their later efforts, it’s a pretty straightforward plot, but as has become a Coen touchstone, it becomes muddied by confusion, misdirection and a comedy of errors.

Bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) has become sick and tired of the adulterous ways of his young wife Abby (Frances McDormand), and is driven to action when his dear lady shares sheets with his trusted employee Ray (John Getz). Having obtained evidence of the affair and set out a plan to avoid being implicated, he pays a local private investigator (M. Emmett Walsh) to murder the couple and destroy the bodies. But this is Texas, where you’re on your own, and the apparently simple plan is compromised by double crossing and greed, hasty decisions made to the severe regret of all of the four principal main characters.

While it’s always best to ignore the mitigating circumstances behind a film’s progeny and simply view it objectively, it’s hard to watch Blood Simple without being struck by just how assured and confident a display it is by the young creators. Shorn of rough edges or clumsy attempts at uniqueness, the Coens serve up one of the most impressive debut films ever, an unbearably taut and tense story of dark hearts and minds within ordinary civilians venturing into territory best left unexplored.

As well as being a near perfect slice of hokum, the tokens carried on by the duo behind it are clear to see. The opening narration, setting the dark tone for the low key chaos to follow, slow moving establishing scenes and near silent moments of pivotal significance, and of course a trademark villain or unforgettably creepy stock and utterly meticulous scripting. Veteran character actor M. Emmett Walsh gets his career highlight role here, smarmy and smug to the hilt but with the evil within to commit gross and escalating acts of violence in the name of self preservation and reward.

Regular Coen actor and spouse Frances McDormand is also memorable as the rather ambiguous yet relatively innocent Abby, duplicitous morality unwittingly cooking up additional doubt to throw the other characters into further quandary. Further strong work by John Getz and Dan Hedaya helped the two actors carve out rather less successful niches for themselves, and their excellent characterizations help give the film a realistic edge that heightens the drama tenfold. Carter Burwell’s score and great cinematography from future Director Barry Sonnefeld are also noteworthy contributions towards the dark, reticent feel.

The stars are the men behind the camera, however, who push the idiot ball tossing action into overdrive with little more than gentle pressure on the accelerator, directing the flow with a patient, teasing pace and within the film’s set pieces ramping up the suspense to Hitchcockian levels of pleasurable discomfort. Standout moments include a hasty attempt at burying a body and the aftermath of the act, the various farcical returns to the scene of the crime and the final endgame, a brutal and claustrophobic chase of high strung imagination.

And, considering their humor, it’s little surprise that the fraternal pair also cheekily wink at the viewers with a befuddling final shot of questionable importance that leads one down the rabbit hole of hair pulling analysis in the search for symbolism, a full twenty three years before such provocation made No Country For Old Men one of the most talked about films of the 00’s. While most Directors fudge their first time with pretensions of higher class, these two give themselves time to throw in a joke.

It’s classic Coens, just as the film is. Absolutely top drawer entertainment and an enthralling thriller, Blood Simple has just the same visceral impact today as it did when it was unleashed on an unwitting audience back in the 80’s. Decades later, with the duo at the top of the crop, one has to simply express wonder at how naturally and expertly they started off, a film with the panache of veterans that is their best distilled, and perhaps best overall, effort to date.

Scott Patterson

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