Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: Blood Simple (1985)

Blood Simple (1985)
Directed by:  Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring: John Getz (Ray), Frances McDormand (Abby), Dan Hedaya (Julian Marty), M. Emmet Walsh (Private Detective Loren Visser), Samm-Art Williams (Meurice).

What struck me most about watching the Coen Brothers debut film, Blood Simple for the first time in a few years was just how fully formed the Coens worldview and style was right from the start. Like many of the Coens films, this is a movie about characters that sin, and have to be punished for sinning. As the excellent piece on The Dissolve about Fargo a few months back said “The Coens don’t hate their sinners, they just don’t let them get away with their sins” – which pretty accurately describes the characters in Blood Simple. This is also a movie where, like in many Coen movies, the characters make precisely the wrong decision at pretty much every point along the way. This is not what Roger Ebert would define as an “Idiot Plot” – which is basically a plot that could be solved in minutes if all the characters weren’t idiots – because given the information each character has at the time in the movie, their decisions make sense – at least to them. As an audience, we know they are making mistakes, but the poor dumb bastards in the film don’t know that.

The story seems complicated but is reality and befitting the film’s title, is really a simple one. Ray (John Getz) works as a bartender for Marty (Dan Hedaya) and is having an affair with Marty’s much younger wife Abby (Frances McDormand). Marty finds this out from P.I. Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), who he then hires to kill the pair of them. There is a lot of confusion, misunderstandings and double crosses – so nothing works out like any of its characters plan it will – and body count rises throughout.

The Coens don’t waste any real time on the psychology of the characters. The whole movie is set in motion by Ray and Abby’s affair – and yet we never really learn how or why their affair started – or for that matter, how Abby got married to Marty in the first place. Like many Coen brothers movie the plot can be summed up by the tagline to their great No Country for Old Men – “You can’t stop what’s coming”. That would work for Blood Simple as well – the characters are doomed from the outset, but don’t realize that yet. They make decision after decision that makes complete and total sense to them at the time, but winds up just digging themselves deeper into a mess of their own making. The film is masterful in terms of plot construction – every scene leads directly from the scene that preceded it, and directly into the next one. There is no time wasted on anything unnecessary to the plot. The film is a modern film noir – but neatly twists some of the genre’s clichés.

The film, it must be said, a little rough around the edges at times – this is to be expected when you’re dealing with first time filmmakers. When the Coens released a Director’s Cut 15 years after its initial release, the runtime of the movie didn’t change. They simply tightened a few scenes here and there to make it flow just a little bit better.

The performances, for the most part, are good but best of all is M. Emmet Walsh, who is great as Visser. He thinks he’s smarter than Marty, sizes him up from the start, and thinks he has to play him so he can get the same money, for less work, and leave no witnesses against him. It’s a good plan – only it doesn’t quite work out the way he plans, because others get in the way. Walsh was a wonderful character actor – often doing good, small roles, and in Visser he had the role of his career. This is a movie about only slimy characters – and he’s the slimiest of them all. Dan Hedaya is also excellent as Marty – who like Visser – thinks he is smarter than he really is. John Getz has the type of role that Fred MacMurray played in Double Indemnity or Tom Ewell in Detour – he never seems to realize just what a sucker he is. Frances McDormand, in one of her earliest roles, is also quite good – although she is hampered a bit by the fact that her character never really figures out what is going on – she’s confused, as well as an emotional wreck, at the end of the movie – and given what happened to everyone else, she may never figure out what happened.

There are two virtuoso – nearly wordless – sequences in Blood Simple. Without giving too much away, I’ll say the first one involves one character trying to dispose of a dead body, which doesn’t want to co-operate, and the other is the climax – that has two characters involved in a bloody battle, even though they cannot see other – they are opposite sides of a wall.

Blood Simple lacks the ambition of much of the Coens work. It really is precisely what it seems like – a modern day noir, with only a few characters and locations (the film was an indie, made on a very limited budget). But the film is fiendishly clever and stylistic – and did what the Coens hoped it would – put them on the map. It is often ranked among the greatest debut films of all time – and it deserves to be there. The Coens have topped Blood Simple a number of times in their career – but for pure bloody pleasure, Blood Simple works just about perfectly.

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