Movies: Blood Simple (1984)

I haven’t seen all of the Coen brothers’ films, but every single one I’ve seen has been uniquely wonderful in its own right, so it was with some measure of excitement that I decided to revisit their debut feature film, 1984’s Blood Simple. I had seen it once back in the 1990s and remembered liking it a great deal, but I hadn’t watched it again since then and didn’t remember much about it other than a few iconic shots. I have to say, though, that the movie is every bit as awesome as it was the first time I saw it, perhaps even more so because I now have the perspective that the ensuing years and the consumption of several of their later films have provided.

Joel and Ethan Coen were not long out of college when they decided to make Blood Simple; Joel had, in fact, recently worked as an assistant editor on a little film called The Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi. Because Raimi had gotten funding for The Evil Dead by cutting a short film called Within the Woods that would serve as a trailer and then pounding the pavement looking for investors, he advised that the Coens try to raise capital the same way. The brothers took Raimi’s advice, crafting a short reel that actually featured the legendary Bruce Campbell, and was filmed by Barry Sonnenfeld, another recent film school graduate who would of course later go on to become an acclaimed director in his own right, helming the 1990s Addams Family films, Men In Black, Get Shorty, and many others.

The Coen brothers lugged a projector around to show the trailer at the homes of friends and acquaintances and anyone who might give them a little bit of cash to realize their dream. After a year, they’d amassed about a million and a half dollars, and went into production.

For the female lead, they initially sought Holly Hunter, but as she wasn’t available at the time (but would memorably star in their second film, the beloved, dark screwball comedy Raising Arizona), she recommended her roommate, Frances McDormand, a stage actress who had never been in a feature film before. This historical happenstance not only led to one of the Coen brothers’ longest collaborative relationships, but it also took a personal turn as well, as Frances McDormand and Joel Coen would marry in 1984, the same year the film was released. The pair remain married to this day.

For one of the main lead roles, the brothers desperately wanted to cast the iconic character actor M. Emmett Walsh, though he apparently was reluctant to star in a film by a couple of untested youngsters and insisted on being paid his fee in cash every day. The part would actually earn Walsh an Independent Spirit Award, and to be honest, it’s difficult to imagine the film with anyone else in the role, as he plays it to jolly, menacing perfection. Rounding out the fairly small cast were John Getz (who would later star in David Cronenberg’s The Fly), Dan Hedaya (of The Hunger and Commando), and theater and TV actor/writer Samm-Art Williams.

Blood Simple—the title taken from a line in Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest—is classed as a neo-noir, but it has almost a pulp horror sensibility layered in with the classic noir tropes, which are sometimes upended in interesting ways. The influence of Sam Raimi is readily apparent, especially in some of the camera movements, but this movie is largely a case of the Coen brothers emerging almost fully formed with their own unique style right out of the gate. Fans will recognize early echoes of many of their later films, including Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and No Country for Old Men; like many of their movies, the plot deals with a half-baked scheme that begins to dramatically unravel, as mistake builds upon mistake until everything is completely and utterly fubar. There’s also that trademark Coen brothers’ deadpan humor; it’s understated here and considerably less wacky than their follow-up, Raising Arizona, but it’s there nonetheless.

Frances McDormand plays Abby, the wife of a Texas bar owner named Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), who is almost exclusively referred to by his last name. It’s pretty clear that Marty is controlling, and possibly even abusive, and Abby seems as though she’s had enough. Perhaps unwisely, she chooses to begin an affair with one of her husband’s employees, a bartender named Ray (John Getz).

Marty is a shitty husband, sure, but he isn’t stupid. He knows his wife is up to something, and he hires a private investigator named Lorren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to find out who it is she’s banging. Visser follows Abby and Ray to a motel and takes photos; Marty didn’t actually ask him to get photographic evidence, but Visser apparently considers this a perk of the job, which right away clues you in that he’s kind of a sleaze and probably dangerous, no matter what his down-home, jovially folksy façade would have you believe.

When Ray goes back to the bar to quit and collect his back pay, Marty puts the idea in his head that Abby is just playing him, and that she’s eventually going to screw him too (and not in the fun way). This ambiguity about Abby’s motives haunts Ray for the rest of the movie’s runtime, causing a tremendous amount of suspense as the couple increasingly miscommunicate and talk past each other as events get darker and darker.

Marty attempts to bodily abduct Abby from Ray’s house, but the scrappy Abby breaks his finger and gives him a solid kick in the balls that makes him puke up his lunch in the front yard. Because his ego can’t take this slight to his manhood, he decides to hire Visser to kill both Abby and Ray for $10,000. Visser, ever the opportunist, agrees, telling Marty to take a very obvious fishing trip out of town and make sure he’s seen by as many people as possible.

When Marty returns, he meets Visser at the bar to hand over the cash after Visser produces photographic evidence that Abby and Ray are dead. But because this happens at only about the halfway point of the movie, you just know that it can’t be as cut and dried as all that, and indeed, Visser quite unexpectedly shoots Marty where he sits and leaves him for dead. Soon after, we learn that Ray and Abby are still very much alive, and have no idea that Visser took photos of them sleeping and doctored them to make it look as though they’d been shot.

From this point forward, the movie becomes an ever more intricate web of misunderstandings and fuck-ups and double-crosses, as Ray comes to believe that Abby shot her husband and feels the need to cover it up for her without telling her, another employee of the bar thinks Ray stole the $10,000 payout from the bar’s safe, and Abby doesn’t even realize that Marty is dead. Visser too becomes convinced that he’s going to have to eliminate Abby and Ray from the equation to keep his part in the scheme from being exposed. It’s a fantastically labyrinthine plot, with many mistaken assumptions on the parts of all the characters leading to tragic consequences, but it’s still pretty straightforward and easy to follow, with one event following very logically and naturally from the last. The film is also perfectly paced, maintaining tension all throughout its taut 96 minutes.

The somber piano score (by Carter Burwell, his first of many scores for the Coens) is also incredible, giving the whole thing a moody vibe that’s occasionally lightened up with great songs performed by the Four Tops and Patsy Cline.

Much like some of the later Coen brothers’ films, Blood Simple has long stretches of screen time with no dialogue, but you’ll be too riveted to the action to even notice, and it also makes great use of thriller tropes, moments of grim brutality, and well-placed jump scares to keep the audience on edge. The final sequence is utterly terrifying, an amazing suspense set-piece, and it ends with a bit of delicious irony that just puts the chef’s kiss on top of the whole shebang. In my opinion, Blood Simple hasn’t dated at all and is still a masterful thriller that anyone who’s into the Coen brothers should absolutely dig.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


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