The films of the Coen Brothers tend to split their admirers into different camps. Some love everything they do, many favor their loonier comedic endeavors (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and still others pledge allegiance to their more straightforward and violent dramatic offerings (Miller's Crossing, Fargo, No Country for Old Men).
I fall into the latter camp, having first encountered the unique sensibilities of Joel and Ethan Coen on a tiny television in my tiny Brooklyn living quarters in the late 1980s. Even in a bowdlerized version for television, interrupted for commercials every 10 minutes, Blood Simple held me mesmerized from its opening shot -- an extreme low-angle view of a two-lane highway, shredded rubber tire in the foreground -- to its last.
Watching the film again last night, I was struck by how accomplished the film looks. You could play it on a double bill with No Country for Old Men and be reminded that the Coens already knew the power of silence way back in 1984. They also knew a great image when they saw one, appreciated the value of underplaying a performance, recognized the allure of shadows and silhouettes, and treasured subtle nuances. They've grown and matured, expanding their thematic range, but their debut demonstrates that they've always been uncommonly assured filmmakers. The lazy drawl of M. Emmet Walsh, narrating shots of unpopulated landscapes, sets the stage: "The world is full of complainers. ... What I know about is Texas. Down here, you're on your own." We're introduced to Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand) solely by their voices as they talk quietly while driving on a rainy night. They make love in a roadside motel, their bodies illuminated by passing headlights, and in the morning Ray receives a mysterious phone call -- from Abby's husband.
With adultery as an appetizer, it isn't long before murder is on the menu. Jealous bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) stews over the affair until he's ready to boil over, turning to sleazy private detective Loren Visser (aforementioned opening scene narrator Walsh) to make it all go away: "There's a big incinerator behind my place."
We know Visser is greasy and tasteless because he took photographs of the copulating couple, even though all Marty wanted was confirmation that his wife had proven unfaithful. We know Marty is a bad husband because, well, just look at him. We know Ray is a good guy because he moves deliberately and speaks in a low but sexy growl. We know Abby is gorgeous (at age 27, Frances McDormand was a smokin' hot babe), but we're not sure if she's a cheating two-timer, as Marty claims, or a lost soul in need of a little good loving, as Ray seems to think.
If the characterizations are thin, that's probably intentional and, in any case, all to the good. With film noir archetypes firmly in place -- jealous husband, suffering wife, strapping love interest, gun-happy private eye -- the Coens are free to play with expectations. The love triangle is bent out of shape, honorable people behave dishonorably, dishonorable people display heroic strength, deadly assumptions are made, misunderstandings arise, and betrayal rules the day (and night).
One of the ways that the Coens keep the viewer off balance is through the effective use of unusual angles and unexpected camera moves. An early example is a traveling shot down a bar that gracefully glides and dips over the head of an unconscious man, but there are numerous others. While such acrobatics tend to draw attention to themselves, most are well integrated into the scene in which they are used, counterpointing the tension that ebbs and flows throughout the picture. Future director Barry Sonnenfield served as cinematographer and captured many stunning images that have been lodged in my brain for more than two decades.
Carter Burwell, who would go on to compose the musical scores for all of the Coens' films, here utilizes a very simple and haunting piano theme to enhance the mood. Along with the ample and effective use of silence, other sounds add to the atmosphere of dread simply by virtue of being isolated on the soundtrack: the thumping tail of a dog, a shovel scraping on pavement, the whirring, rhythmic rotations of ceiling fans.
Frances McDormand is sexy without being a stereotypical vamp in her film debut as the resourceful Abby. Iowa-born John Getz occasionally has problems with his Texas accent, but effectively communicates the desperation of a lonely soul in love with a married woman. Dan Hedaya gets considerable mileage out of a two-note (gruff and angry) performance. M. Emmet Walsh, who had impressed the Coens' as Dustin Hoffman's parole officer in Straight Time, hits all the right notes as a cheerful sleazebucket. And listen for the then-unknown, now-distinctive voice of uncredited Holly Hunter leaving a message on a telephone answering machine.
In their first film, Joel and Ethan Coen portrayed violence without romanticizing it. It's bloody, painful, and sickening, sometimes it happens without warning, and nearly always it is meted out without honor. Blood Simple is a modern take on classic film noir, stylish and accomplished, but, above all, as close to the truth as possible.