Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1984 debut film, Blood Simple, passed by relatively unnoticed at the box office, despite being well-reviewed by critics. Now, given the brothers’ cult following, it’s unsurprising that a director’s cut has been released. Crafted just as its creators wanted it to be, the film is just as voguish and absurd as those that followed it, but with an extra twist of neon noir that sets it apart from the rest of their library.
Blood Simple is, as all the best Coen films are, quintessentially and necessarily American. A film about a private detective hired by a jealous husband to kill his wife and the man that cuckolded him could, ostensibly, happen in any 80’s city. But the Texan drawls and desolate landscapes in the opening scenes and the PI in his Stetson blowing lilac-tinted smoke circles at the husband in his Frye’s define the film’s Deep South character. “For money,” M, Emmet Walsh’s cartoonish PI says, of his reason to kill the wife and lover at the request of the husband. “Yeah. Tha’s right smart, the money. In Russia, they make on’y fifty cent a day.”
The plot is small, simple, and twisted as a soap opera: a story tightly contained within a small handful of central characters. The film plays out like, well, a play: the same few key settings, a couple of key props and the carefully crafted dialogue help to create this effect. At points, the voices seem almost detached from their speakers: voiceovers and shadowy shots from behind where you can’t see the speaker’s face adds to this, creating a mood of near unreality that allows Coen(s) to explore the distinct style of detective noir in the estranged world of long shots and flickering neon backlighting that they have created.
Blood Simple is as much an ode to the archetype of backstreet murder stories as O Brother Where Art Thou is to Western epics and Hail, Caesar! is to Hollywood’s golden age. It replicates the clichés of dirty, secret motel sex and green-eyed spouses in the manner one would expect from Coen & Coen but, unlike their later works, this one is darker, less satirical. It lacks their other films’ risible sense of humour, for one thing. It has its moments, of course, such as a recurring one-liner about marriage counselling and pretty much the entire character of the PI. But since its creators seemingly have yet to find their trademark tone, for the most part the writing is based in drama and suspense rather than absurd comedy and exaggeration of theme. The lewdness of the PI, a typically caricature-ish Coen character, becomes creepily au fait with the idea of committing a double murder.
As the film progresses it devolves into a deliciously complicated game of whodunit, with the compact cast all pointing fingers at each other for murders that might not have even happened. It climaxes with one of cinema’s most horrifying sequences, a gruesome showdown between Walsh and Frances McDormand that elevates the former to the blood-crazed terror the film is named after and the latter to an iconic neo-noir heroine. The acting is the perfect balance of subtlety and pantomime, Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography is reminiscent of the better kind of graphic novel and, as the film peaks, its writing and direction truly gets into its stride. It is here that the Coens’ begin to find their niche spot of choreographed drama and outlandish comedy that makes their films so unique. Without spoiling anything, I can safely say that the film’s final line is its best, funniest, and most haunting.
Although not quite as brilliant as its successors, the Coen Brother’s first film stands alone as a beautifully framed thriller with a plot that pays homage to its genre without becoming a stereotype of it. Blood Simple is a masterpiece of its era. The director’s cut breathes new life into it, giving a modern audience a refined and perfected origin of some of the best filmic talent and most well-known Hollywood creators of today.
– by Amy White
*Image courtesy of Cineplex.com