“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. Then it was another eleven before their first Best Picture win. And if you look at that victory with No Country for Old Men alongside their more recently acclaimed A Serious Man, you should force yourself to go all the way back to 1984 for a glimpse at their genetic originator.
You can’t help but see the dark noir atmosphere they’ve recently revived to universal appeal when watching Blood Simple. (don’t forget the period at the end as more wink rather pretentious punctuation on behalf of two young newcomers). Even their funniest films—Fargo, Raising Arizona, and Burn After Reading—have an edge that sets them apart to prove more akin to Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink’s dangerous cliffs of methodic drama yet somehow it’s their debut that becomes the most strikingly similar to this 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 to explain 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. We find the film’s title appropriate early once blood begins to flow freely as lives are taken with the pull of a trigger, but the love seen behind every action remains as difficult a concept as possible. 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—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 signaling Walsh’s exit in the short term.
With a steely-eyed seriousness in his quest for vengeance, Hedaya gives what could be his best performance. He stares blankly away from Ray the next morning as the insolent cheat quits bartending and asks for two weeks pay. His retort, “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 about her infidelity that keeps Marty calm and distant, but the thought of retribution soon enters with a violent encounter outside Ray’s home 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 in 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 misguided conclusions. Characters believe others are murderers or dead when the opposite is true. If only the police had arrived at Marty’s bar first, none of the ensuing craziness would have happened and we’d have missed a presumed dead man rise to pull a trigger from his grave—a man doing whatever’s necessary to protect his lover’s murderous deed and a “too smart for his own good” gentleman realizing he left incriminating evidence at the scene of a crime. Or is it the return of a ghost looking for payback on the woman who scorned him? Thankfully the Coens show just how good they are at writing scripts early, making the paranoid delusions and emotionally clouded judgments somehow weave into one another perfectly to turn every character against each other without 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 by their own false assumptions and—with the help of Deborah Neumann—an unforgettable passage of dialogue with Hedaya at the bar.
This is where Blood Simple. shines despite a few instances of quiet inducing sleepiness rather than tension. Don’t get me wrong, the suspense is palpable—especially towards the end once Walsh’s Visser returns to town to tie 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. McDormand and Getz complete each other with her loquaciousness and his stoicism, an obvious love for one another hidden underneath their growing distrust. Marry these fine roles with an insane level of poise and detail on behalf of the Coens’ directing 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 the walls of a darkened room create imagery not to be forgotten. Joel and Ethan’s current successes are proven not to be flukes. They had it in them from day one.