A quintessential American independent film from the eighties and still a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. Grim, gory and darkly comic, BLOOD SIMPLE was the first feature by the Coen Brothers, introducing a brilliant and distinctly American voice into a moviemaking landscape that definitely needed it–and if you ask me still does.
Fact: I’m a HUGE fan of the work of Ethan and Joel Coen. The Coens have lost much of their indie cred after becoming Academy Award darlings (with 2007’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN), but I still agree with Empire Magazine’s claim that “In a perfect world all movies would be made by the Coen Brothers”.
BLOOD SIMPLE, which appeared in 1984, was the Coens’ very first film, jump starting not just an important filmmaking career but also the indie film movement as a whole, introducing talents like cinematographer (and current directorial big shot) Barry Sonnenfeld and actors John Getz, Dan Hedeya and Frances McDormand. Budgeted at $1.5 million, it was lensed on location in Texas and released by the legendary midnight movie impresario Ben Barenholz, who also shepherded the early films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, George Romero, David Lynch and Guy Maddin–obviously the guy knows talent when he sees it.
The film was a massive hit, with a formula–an unapologetically movie-mad noir framework juiced up with lurid twists (Joel Coen began his career as an editor on THE EVIL DEAD, and the experience carried over)–that has proven quite influential. Indie icons like Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer and John Dahl owe more than a little to BLOOD SIMPLE.
The version of this film available on DVD, however, is not the one released back in 1984. It’s a reedited “Director’s Cut” with the “boring parts” removed, making it run a few minutes shorter. The film still plays quite well, perhaps even better than it did initially, but purists are advised to track down the old Universal VHS, currently the only source for BLOOD SIMPLE’S original cut.
The young and attractive Abby is having an affair with Ray, a barkeeper at a Texas salon owned by her husband Marty. The latter has grown suspicious of his none-too-loving wife and hired Visser, an overweight detective, to shadow her. Visser comes back with revealing photographs of Abby and Ray.
Marty heads to Ray’s house the next morning to confront the adulterous couple, and ends up suffering a whopping kick in the nuts by his own wife. Pissed, Marty re-contacts Visser, requesting that he kill Abby and Ray. Visser follows through, or at least says he does, again with photos to prove it. But the pictures are doctored, and Ray and Abby are still alive. Visser it seems has his own dastardly plans, which begin with him fatally shooting Marty in his own office.
That night Ray turns up at the bar and discovers Marty’s cadaver. Fearing he’ll be fingered for the killing, Ray decides to dispose of the corpse in the middle of a nearby field–but Marty, it turns out, isn’t quite dead, so Ray ends up burying him alive.
Afterward Ray just isn’t the same. He’s gone “Blood Simple,” the apparently psychotic state one enters into after committing a murder. Abby comes to fear him, but in truth it’s Visser who’s the scary one, as he proves by shooting Ray and then stalking Abby through her apartment…during which, unexpectedly, he’s the one who bears the brunt of the abuse!
Those who know the Coen Brothers through later films like FARGO and THE BIG LEBOWSKI may not recognize their hand in BLOOD SIMPLE, although it remains one of their most distinctive and bravura works. For that matter it’s among the most stylish and assured films of any sort to appear in the last few decades. Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography remains unsurpassed in its dynamic use of color and shadow, and the ever-mobile camerawork is unfailingly inventive. Of course this makes for a self-conscious and even show-offy film, but it’s kept afloat by the Coens’ playful, mocking touch, as demonstrated in the film’s most famous shot: a slow pan down a bar that pauses to jump over the head of a passed-out drunk.
Narrative-wise the film is also impressive. Ethan and Joel Coen are among the small–very small–handful of modern moviemakers whose writing ability matches their filmmaking prowess. The dialogue here is extensive, with a flow and rhythm worthy of David Mamet (though without the quotable zingers of the Coens’ later films).
The film overall is richly deserving of all the mainstream attention it’s received over the years, but don’t let that put you off. The Coens’ love of the macabre and grotesque, inherited from THE EVIL DEAD’S Sam Raimi, is in ample evidence. Particularly representative is a gruesomely funny bit where John Getz tries to clean up a pool of blood but only succeeds in spreading it all over, and the succeeding sequence in which he slooooowly buries Dan Hedeya alive. And then there’s the final confrontation between Francis McDormand and the psychotic M. Emmett Walsh, which is Hitchcock-worthy in its agonizing suspense, but with a diabolical angle that places it in a category of its own. Not unlike the film overall.
River Road Productions/Circle Films
Director: Joel Coen
Producer: Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Editing: “Roderick Jaynes” (Ethan & Joel Coen), Don Wiegmann
Cast: M. Emmett Walsh, Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedeya, Samm-Art Williams, Deborah Neumann, Raquel Gavia, Van Brooks, Senor Marco, William Creamer, Loren Bivens, Bob McAdams, Shannon Sedwick, Nancy Finger, Holly Hunter