Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh
Blood Simple is not only the Coen Brothers’ filmmaking debut, it’s also the first screen role for three-time Oscar winner Frances MacDormand as well as Barry Sonnefeld’s brilliant first narrative outing as cinematographer. Pulled tighter than a guitar string, Blood Simple is often a young screenwriter’s go-to script for mystery plotting. Its seedy tone, along with its unwavering moral sensibilities, juxtapose unexpectedly well with the film’s dark comedy, establishing the unique Coen voice present in their films for decades to come. Blood Simple holds a 7.6/10 on IMDb, an 83/100 on Metacritic, and a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Since my first post was a noir movie, I wanted to echo back to it by hitting a different take on the genre. I also practically worship the Coen Brothers, yet I’d never seen their first movie. Since this month’s theme is–
May is for Murder!
Blood Simple shoots all the right targets.
This movie has been on my must-watch list for a long time too. I was a freshman in college when No Country for Old Men came out. The movie hit this then-newbie film student like a cattle prod to the forehead. I’d already heard of the Coen Brothers because they were from my home state, and every other person at my out-of-state school asked if I’d seen Fargo (and were subsequently disappointed at my only mild accent). No Country for Old Men, however, awakened my love for dark comedy and blended it with my disposition towards morality plays and thrillers. My relatives also hammered Westerns into my head from a young age, so I felt that I could appreciate all the nuance and reference put into Cormac McCarthy’s story.
Suffice to say, I voraciously consumed as many of Joel and Ethan’s films as I could afterwards. Blood Simple, however, escaped me. In my experience, watching auteur directors’ first films (when they’re already established) can be like eating underripe fruit: you know how it should taste, but the flavor and texture aren’t quite there yet.
15 years later (ouch), I was scrolling HBO Max’s TCM hub and saw the Blood Simple poster. I knew I had to swallow my nerves and press play.
Abby wants out. Marty, her husband and owner of a grungy roadhouse, is unstable and has repeatedly threatened her. Helping her escape is Ray, Marty’s main bartender. Ray’s got a crush on Abby, but he’s never acted on it… until now. Before leaving town, Ray and Abby spend one night of passion together. Unbeknownst to them, a private dectective named Visser has taken pictures of them and given the evidence to Marty.
Furious, Marty attempts to kill Abby, but she gets away. Knowing that he won’t get another chance, Marty hires Visser to kill the couple for him instead. After taking verbal abuse from Marty for the last time, Visser agrees to do the job but has an idea on how to get better pay. It should be easy enough, but when blood and money are involved, nothing’s simple.
The first 20 minutes or so seemed to confirm my earlier fears–the grainy film, the bizarre characters, and occasionally awkward comedic execution were all signs that the Coen Brothers showed promise with this film and delivered with subsequent efforts. There were intermittent signs of sharp dialogue and amusing flourishes, but, beyond the inventive cinematography, Blood Simple wasn’t a fully baked classic.
Then came the murder. Every scene leading up to this one efficiently set up a payoff that was about to be executed. Even more brilliant is that each player has the wrong piece of the puzzle, so every time they try to make sense of things, the characters set each other off in a NEW wrong direction. Nothing is wasted, and Blood Simple barrels towards one hell of a climactic fight scene.
In fact, the tight plotting is so admirable, I’m a little perplexed as to why the Coen Brothers’ later efforts feel shaggier. Don’t get me wrong, I love Barton Fink‘s absurdist fiery motel and Inside Llewen Davis‘s tragic, circular journey. Rarely, however, have I seen a director’s work vacillate between clockwork precision and aimless pendulum swinging. If, by comparison, Steven Spielberg made a movie with emotionally available fathers or if Quinten Tarantino made a movie with tastefully restrained violence, the average viewer would take note.
Blood Simple also employs innovative production synergy–the windshield wipers during the opening credits flop to the beat of the music while clever sound effects cue viewers into how many bullets are left in a gun. I was left in awe that a debut feature could showcase flashy elements of each aspect of cinema without overshadowing the story or characters. No wonder film students study this one!
I was so floored by this movie, in fact, that I sat my mom and brother down to watch it ASAP. My brother, a music director by trade, similarly gushed over the sound and music sync ups and called the plot “delightfully unhinged.” My mom, however, consumes a steady diet of murder shows, so she was expecting more gunplay and car chases. She appreciated the camerawork and liked how sleazy the ultimate villain was, but she thought it was a little slow in parts and was frustrated by how stupid one of the characters behaves during a cover-up attempt (to be fair, that person IS really stupid, but the movie makes a point to show it).
At its core, Blood Simple is a noir film–in which people try to commit a crime to better their situation and things go horribly awry. Many times, noir films are introspective between bursts of violence and intrigue because the characters’ personal demons prove their undoing. If a viewer doesn’t understand that before watching, they may be disappointed there isn’t more action.
In the right mindset, though, Blood Simple will prove to be a delirious journey into man’s heart of darkness.