Joel and Ethan Coen have been making films for over three decades and it appears that there is nothing they can’t do. They’ve created iconic original stories, subversive remakes of classic Hollywood fare, and adaptations of difficult literature. They’ve won Oscars for writing and directing, and have been nominated for just about every task a filmmaker could tackle. Their body of work defies genre, with entries spanning drama, comedy, western, and noir, but a Coen Brothers film is always distinctly a Coen Brothers film. Over these next few weeks, we’re going to look at each of their works one by one to see if we can determine just what that means.
Blood Simple (1984)
Principal cast: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh
Plot: A jealous bar owner suspects that his wife is cheating on him with one of the bartenders, so he hires a shady private detective to investigate, and subsequently kill the young couple.
The thesis of Blood Simple is plainly stated at the outset. In slimy voiceover, Loren Visser (Walsh) declares “…nothin’ comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, President of the United States, or Man of the Year; somethin’ can all go wrong.” Interesting that Visser invokes such respected titles, given that not a single character in the film could be considered prestigious. Sure Marty (Hedaya) is living the good life by local standards, but being the owner of the only bar in town is a far cry from the Pope, liquid salvation be damned. Yet the statement rings true for everyone involved. Things go very, very wrong.
Visser opts to fake the hit on Abby and Ray (McDormand and Getz, respectively), murder Marty, and walk off with all of the cash in the bar. Ray believes Abby committed the murder, Abby believes Ray committed the robbery, and nobody knows who’s actually still breathing. These misunderstandings fuel most of the narrative motion, and it makes Blood Simple a difficult watch. It’s a struggle to not yell at the screen. “Noooo! Don’t do that! Just back out of the room and let the cops handle it — OH MY GOD THATS GONNA LEAVE A FINGERPRINT!” Yet as much as I demanded the characters make better decisions, they continued being simple.
Wait a minute! Did I just say “simple?” I did indeed. The term “blood simple” comes from the Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest, and it describes the way people seem to grow dumber after prolonged exposure to stressful, violent situations. In a way, it’s the same thing that motivates so much of the Coens’ later work, and is often mined for comedy. Heck, Ben Stiller made a career out of it. If one character would just pump the brakes and calmly explain him/herself, things might actually iron out. As frustrating as it can be to watch, it’s in this frustration that we find a connection to the real world. I mean, I can count on two hands the amount of times I’ve covered up a murder only to find out my girlfriend had nothing to do with it.
In an alternate universe, there’s a Blood Simple 2, in which a zany jury is juxtaposed against an uptight lawyer as both struggle process the events of the first film based solely on Abby’s understanding of things. J.K. Simmons as the judge, Michael Stuhlbarg as the lawyer, and John Turturro is the lead juror.
In hindsight, Abby’s telling of the story might go something like this:
“I was having an affair with an employee of my husband’s, and when I went to the bar one day I discovered that it had been robbed and there was blood on the floor. Then a sniper shot Ray and I hid and then my husband tried to shoot me through the wall, so I shot him instead but then he spoke and it didn’t sound like my husband. In fact, I haven’t seen my husband in like a week. I swear I didn’t do anything funny.”
Anyone with better information is dead. Well, except for Meurice, who really just wants to find out who stole money from his workplace.
Oddly enough it’s Abby who we know least about. Even though she’s the human MacGuffin at the center of Ray and Marty’s tale, we don’t get much to go on. We know that she’s unhappy in her marriage (and that her husband is a jerk), but we don’t get any information about her long-term goals. Even her relationship with Ray (Getz) is decidedly one-sided. He’s regularly expressing his love for her, but something about it feels unrequited. Her relationship with Ray could certainly be based in legitimate love, but who’s to say that it isn’t just a fling? We just don’t know. What we do know is that Ray will do anything for his new flame and Marty can’t abide having his power/manhood threatened. Abby seems to just be going with the flow as best as she can.
Had Abby and Marty opened up to each other, maybe there wouldn’t be any infidelity. Had Abby and Ray spent more time speaking and less time brooding, Ray might still be alive. If everybody just let their thoughts be known, there’d be a lot less blood and a lot more simple.
See what I did there? You can thank me later.
What astonishes me the most about Blood Simple (and so much of the Coens’ later work) is the emphasis on communication. Perhaps this enthusiasm for being vocal about one’s needs and desires is what makes the Coens’ partnership so fruitful. There’s just no way they could have created such a prolific body of work without good communication. Heck, I can hardly watch a movie with my sibling without a strong chance of mutual injury, let alone spend decades with them making masterpieces.
– This is the first collaboration between the Coens and Barry Sonnenfeld. He would go on to be cinematographer for Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing
– This is also the first collaboration between the Coens and Carter Burwell, with whom they would make a long line of incredible scores/soundtracks.
– The frequent use of a slowly rotating ceiling fan as a point of focus during moments when lost characters are seeking guidance. It’s as if, in a Texas summer, the fan is God.
– Speaking of summer, Dan Hedaya’s chin dimple is the sweatiest place known to man.
– Meurice, our only innocent, bleeds cool. We watch him smoothly pick up a woman at his bar. That shuffle he does after putting on the jukebox is the film’s one moment of levity and the way the shot focuses on his feet as they do their thang is priceless.
– The visual ties between this film and Sam Raimi’s work are very clear. Most notably when we get a legitimate “Evil” POV shot that rushes up toward the action during the front yard assault.
– Another notable Raimi-sequel shot is when a slow sweeping camera hops over a passed out patron on its way up the bar. The bounce upon “landing” seals the deal.
– The way the windshield wipers swipe away the opening titles is delightful.
– The burial sequence is completely silent. Not a word is spoken, but the scene crackles with tension, and both Ray and Marty’s motivations are clear, even as they shift from moment to moment.
– The in-camera teleportation from the bar to the dream sequence predates but completely evokes Michel Gondry. I’m curious to see if anything like this pops up in subsequent Coen films.
– “You left your weapon behind.” Despite being a literal reference to Abby’s gun being at the crime scene, Dream-Marty suggests that her “weapon” is a make-up kit.
– Both Dream Marty and real-life Ray suggest to Abby that she only says “I love you” because she’s scared.
– John C. Reilly might age into characters like Visser. Reilly has a broader range than Walsh, but I’d love to see him extend it further to play a slimeball rather than a pitiable fool.
– The score merges the breath of Marty’s attack dog into a tribal chant. This is Burwell showing off long before he knew he could.
– Visser’s lighter, a potential red herring, finds its home under a bundle of fish. How clever.
I’m eager to see where this experiment goes. I hope to dig deep and see if we can figure out what makes the Coen boys tick … and how they’ve managed to stay on the top of their game for so long. Tune in next time where I’ll examine Raising Arizona, their kidnapping caper, starring my wife, Holly Hunter.