REVIEW: Blood Simple. [1984]

“I ain’t done nothin’ funny”

It took Fargo, thirteen years later, for the Coen Brothers to finally get recognition at the Oscars with three nominations culminating in a win for Best Screenplay, and then another eleven for a Best Picture win. Looking at that victory, No Country for Old Men, and the most recently acclaimed A Serious Man, you really do have to go all the way back to 1984 for a glimpse at their genetic originator. Watching Blood Simple., (don’t forget the period at the end as a little wink of laughter rather than pretentious punctuation on behalf of two young newcomers), you can’t help but see the dark noir atmosphere they’ve recently revived to universal appeal. Even their funniest films—Fargo, Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading—have an edge that sets them apart, more akin to Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink’s dangerous cliff of methodic drama, yet somehow it is their debut which becomes the most strikingly similar to those of their renaissance. Moments of humor seep in to lighten the almost plodding pace, but the gravity of guilt and conscience filling the characters minds with paranoia lends it the Coens’ trademark of overall tragic disposition.

The fantastic M. Emmet Walsh speaks in voiceover at the start, his words flowing over a collage of desolate Texas as he explains the selfish nature of humanity within his state. An ‘every man for himself’ attitude prevails with the conniving residents finding their lives intertwined in murderous deeds. One finds the film’s title appropriate early on once blood begins to flow freely, life able to be taken with the pull of a trigger, but love—the construct behind every action here—remaining as difficult a concept as can be. It is love for a cheating wife that drives Dan Hedaya’s Julian Marty to hire Walsh’s Private Detective Loren Visser. A jovial and slightly imbalanced man, Visser finds the current bedfellow of Frances McDormand’s Abby and decides to light a fire under his client with photos of she and Ray (John Getz) asleep beneath the sheets. He knows it was unnecessary—he had Marty call the hotel room for confirmation already—but the fun in seeing a beaten man squirm was too much to miss. Even a comment about cutting the head off the messenger like the Greeks and an angered toss to the floor of Visser’s payment couldn’t damper his mood, a giant belly laugh Walsh’s exit for the short term.

Hedaya, with a steely-eyed seriousness in his quest for vengeance, gives what could be my favorite performance of his; staring blankly away from Ray the next morning as the insolent cheat quits bartending and asks for two weeks pay. The retort of, “she’s an expensive piece of ass,” couldn’t be more fitting as Ray should be happy the man whose marriage he ruined—his boss no less—isn’t beating him to death. It’s the shock of finally losing her, despite knowing her infidelity with other men, keeping Marty calm and distant, but the thought of retribution soon enters, a violent encounter outside Ray’s home only the beginning of the criminal activity to follow. Walsh’s Visser is procured once more for some illegal activity and the foursome find themselves engaged in an intricate series of cover-ups, frame jobs, and outright violent deeds. The Detective is hired to kill the happy couple, but his want of cash and fear of jail lead to a carefully hatched plan to rid himself of the Martys and Ray with one fell swoop. A single gunshot from a pearl-handled handgun is all he needs to make a quick ten grand and be unattached to the crime scene.

What follows is an hour-long journey of blunders and jumping to conclusions. Characters believe others have killed or have died, but they are either alive or murdered by another. If only the police had arrived at Marty’s bar first, none of the craziness would have ensued and we’d have missed a presumed dead man rise to pull a trigger from his own grave, a man doing whatever is necessary to protect his lover’s murderous deed, a ‘too smart for his own good’ gentleman realizing he left incriminating evidence at the scene of a crime, or the return of a ghost looking for payback on the woman who scorned him. Thankfully the Coens showed just how good of screenwriters they were so early on in their careers, making the paranoid delusions and emotionally clouded judgments somehow weave into one another perfectly, turning every character against the other, often times not even knowing who it was they thought they were hunting. Even Samm-Art Williams as the other bartender Meurice adds the right amount of supporting flavor to enhance the multiple story threads unraveling on their own false assumptions, adding, with the help of Deborah Neumann, one of the smartest passages of dialogue with Hedaya at the bar.

And this is where Blood Simple. shines, despite a few instances of quiet inducing more sleepiness than tension. Don’t get me wrong, the suspense is palpable, especially towards the end once Walsh’s Visser returns to town, tying up loose ends, but perhaps the metered exchanges of dialogue in the first half were too good, the silence of the second causing focus to wane. Walsh and Hedaya are dynamite opposite each other, the sweat forming on their brows as the latter’s cold eyes pierce through the former’s never-ceasing grin and McDormand and Getz complete each other with her loquaciousness and his stoicism with an obvious love for one another hidden under their growing distrust. Marry these fine roles with an insane level of poise and detail on behalf of the Coens’ directing prowess and Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography and you’re given a theatrical debut from talent not to be taken lightly. Watching the slow tracking shots down a bar and over a passed out drunk, the bird’s eye view of a car failing to turn over its ignition after the driver finishes burying a man, the constant shadows and light from spinning ceiling fans, and the bright rays of yellow shining throw bullet holes in a darkened room’s walls create imagery not to be forgotten. Joel and Ethan’s current successes are proven to be no flukes; they had it in them from day one.

Blood Simple. 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

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