In my opinion, there have been very few filmmakers that have changed the cinematic landscape for the better since my birth some forty years ago. Many would likely point to folks like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as standard bearers for the post-New Hollywood Cinema gang. And while those two certainly changed the cinematic landscape, I wouldn’t say their effect has been good or for the better. That’s another story, though. What I can say is that January 18, 1985 announced the presence of two game changers in Hollywood, and with Blood Simple‘s release, the world met Joel & Ethan Coen. Without a doubt two of the most original filmmakers still working in Hollywood, the Coen Brothers speak in their voice, tell the stories they want to tell and all with flourishes befitting the finest filmmakers in the history of cinema.
A harbinger of the great things to come from The Coen Brothers, Blood Simple seems as simple as the title professes. However, the deeper we get into the film, the more complicated the scenario within becomes. The epitome of neo-noir, Blood Simple is a story of love, deceit and murder – all hallmarks of the category. Marty (played by Cheers veteran Dan Hedaya) runs a seedy dive of a bar in what appears in the Middle of Nowhere, Texas (it’s actually in a place called Pflugerville, a suburb of Austin). Marty is a jealous man and when he finds out his wife Abby (the screen debut of Frances McDormand) is having an affair with one of the bartenders named Ray (John Getz). So, he hires Lorn Visser (the wonderfully demented M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife. But as we know in films noir, things never go the way the are planned. And this film takes that notion to the farthest end of the spectrum, all starting when Loren decides to kill Marty rather than his wife, erasing the one witness he had to any crime. But Loren leaves behind a personal effect that could incriminate him, so he decides to make a move to eliminate Abby and Ray as well. What plays out foreshadows the humor and, frankly, the twisted nature that the Coens exhibit in their future films.
This film will knock you on your ass. Taking it in context as to when this film arrived, it’s no wonder the Coen Brothers took Hollywood by storm, even if they did so on their own terms and largely outside of the studio system, a move that has allowed them to keep final cut on their films ever since Blood Simple. Only two years after Return of the Jedi and one year after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, this film centered itself in the middle of the golden age of blockbusters. While low-budget, the script allowed for this not to be a hindrance, but rather an advantage. It certainly authenticated what was put on screen – the trials and tribulations of the lower class. Its landscapes are spare, mirroring the morals of the characters.
Something I noticed rewatching this film again was that it almost acts as a study for future films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. There are parts in Blood Simple that are more raw, having edges, where they are later smoothed out in the previously mentioned films – the key example is when Ray is parked along the highway in a situation that would be considered unbecoming should someone happen upon them, when in the distance we see lights coming on. Obviously, this mirrors the scene from Fargo when Geaer Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) has killed a cop and a couple drive by at an inopportune time. This is a film where circumstance and happenstance play big roles, also something that plays out in Fargo as well as The Big Lebowski.
In a technical sense, the absolutely wonderful motion cut that is made when Abby figures out that something has gone terribly awry to her falling in bed is simply stunning. It’s a shame that they got away from tricks like this in the editing of their later films. Also, the archetypes that the Coens play with go against expectation, especially in the case of the femme fatale (Abby…or is she one?).
I would argue that this is one of the five best debut films that have been made in my lifetime. It is fresh, it is taut and it will knock your socks off. If you are a fan of the Coen Brothers later films and you haven’t seen this one, why not check it out and see where they started. It doesn’t have the quirkiness that many of the future films have (especially their sophomore effort, Raising Arizona), but you can see the groundwork. So on its 30th Anniversary, give it a spin. While its production values may have faded (although I only see that as a positive), this film still fucking sizzles on the screen. So get there people and celebrate, for if it wasn’t for the success of this film, we wouldn’t have so many other great works by these esteemed gentlemen.