‘Blood Simple’ launches Coen brothers’ brilliant careers

Blood Simple/1984/River Road, Foxton Entertainment/97 min.

T.S. Eliot wrote that the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper.

In “Blood Simple” banging precedes death, but one life ends spitting dirt; another with a belly laugh. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that “Blood Simple” was the writing and directing debut of first-rate storytellers and masters of neo noir Joel and Ethan Coen. For anyone who saw this movie, now nearly 30 years old, in its initial release in 1984, it must have been exciting to witness the talent of the then almost unknown Coens (Joel was 26, Ethan was 25).

"Blood Simple" was Frances McDormand's first big movie.

The young brothers made a knowing homage to classic noir, updated for ’80s audiences and heavily injected with dark, often perverse, humor. Not only do the Coens honor the traditions and touchpoints of their ’40s predecessors, they also subvert convention and reinvent visual language to serve the story.

Their original tale of adultery, revenge and murder takes place not in the big city, but in Texas, and they nail the mood of a dusty, sweaty small town where lax morals, lust and lawlessness are the only markers on the vast landscape. The title comes from a Dashiell Hammett reference to a dulled mental state (blood simple) that results from repeated exposure to violence.

In her first major screen role, Frances McDormand plays Abby, an appealing country girl – no makeup and all healthy glow – whom some might call a hick. She’s cheating on her husband, tavern owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), with one of his employees, Ray (John Getz). It’s hard to imagine that Abby would even go on a second date with greasy, seething, sleazy Marty, let alone marry him, but hey, that’s why she bedded kinder, gentler Ray. That and his washboard abs.

Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh

When Marty learns that he’s been cuckolded, he hires venal but philosophical butterball P.I. Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to knock the lovers off. The movie opens with this narration from Visser: “The world is full of complainers. And the fact is, nothin’ comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, president of the United States or man of the year; something can all go wrong. … What I know about is Texas and, down here, you’re on your own.”
It seems that Visser has done his duty, but he double-crosses Marty. After that comes a slew of misunderstandings, mistaken identities and messy cleanups, which is pretty impressive, given that there’re only four main characters in the story.
One plot detail in particular to watch for: Though money stolen from Marty’s safe is repeatedly referred to, we never know conclusively who took it. Since three people know the combination, your guess is as good as mine. Part of the fun of this movie is anticipating what comes next so I don’t want to reveal any more twists – it’s unpredictable but not convoluted. In fact, the tight plot and spare dialogue lend the movie an earthy sort of elegance.
Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld’s arresting visual style – stark camera angles and repetition of certain images, such as the overhead fan – heightens the suspense. Sonnenfeld was the cameraman on several other Coen Bros. movies and later became a stylish and successful director on his own, best known for the “Men in Black” series. Carter Burwell wrote the “Blood Simple” score and has worked on every Coen brothers movie since.
The characters might be a bit cartoonish, rendered as they are in broad, sweeping strokes. But that approach works in a movie like this and for these characters who are archetypes of noir love triangles. Life is short and they live it hard. Who has time for psychological complexity and multiple layers of personality? “Blood Simple” is taut, suspenseful, slyly funny and very entertaining. And it holds up well. “Blood Simple” was remade as “A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop” in 2009 by Zhang Yimou.

Joel, left, and Ethan Coen at the New York premiere of 2010's “True Grit,” their most recent movie.

Additionally, the Coens get excellent performances from their actors. With little to say, McDormand instead conveys feeling, especially fear, through nervous gesture and subtle facial expressions. Walsh’s gross gumshoe effortlessly glides from mutton-headed and dawdling to powerful and menacing.

Hedaya’s Marty fights to the bitter end and has since made a reputation in films as a snarling villain (I also loved his tough-love Dad in “Clueless.”) Getz makes the most of his part as well, the neo-noir version of a knight in slightly tarnished armor, though in his case, the armor is more muddy and dusty than tarnished.
The Coen brothers, who later made Oscar winners “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men,” rank with the world’s finest filmmakers and they are the undisputed champions of American neo noir.
Coen brothers photo by Evan Agostini/Associated Press/New York Times
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