Blood Simple (1984)
There is something about a good crime movie that brings to the surface the worst and most perverse traits people like to keep hidden in the dark corners of their souls; something that really forces the characters to open themselves to the viewer and show how complex and contradictory people can be… that is the essence of this movie. Blood Simple was the Coens’ outstanding debut; as far as I’m concerned, it remains their best movie after Barton Fink — their undisputed masterpiece — and I hold it in even higher esteem than Fargo. It is one of my favourite movies, second only to Chinatown. Ironically I originally disliked it the first time I saw it because I found it very slow-paced and boring. Today I know I was wrong. Blood Simple is easily one of the most thrilling and fast-paced movies ever made with a plot that is as simple as it is gripping.
This movie is built around a narrative device called ‘dramatic irony,’ which Alfred Hitchcock used a lot in his movies to create and maintain suspense; it consists of withholding vital information from the characters but allowing the viewer to always be one step ahead, thus making the viewer aware of his powerlessness to change what he knows is going to happen to characters he’s grown to love. For its whole duration only the viewer ever has the whole picture in his mind; the characters have small fragments of a disjointed, mystery puzzle that leaves them clueless in their own personal worlds, unable to trust anyone. This lack of harmony results in all sorts of misunderstandings and situations that will eventually result in tragedy for the four main characters.
On the surface, the movie is very simple: Julian Marty (impeccably played by Dan Hedaya) hires private investigator Loren Visser (M. Emmet Waslh) to find out who his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand in one of her earliest roles), is sleeping with; this happens to be Ray (John Getz). The jealous Marty then pays Visser to kill the couple… and this is when Blood Simple stops being a mundane crime movie and becomes a distinctive Coen movie. The dialogue is acid, witty, and concise. The editing is tight, one scene seamlessly flows into another. The cinematography, capturing dimly-lit interior sets, shadowy spaces and neon lights, is beautiful and unsettling in the way it creates a dark atmosphere. And the sound, with crackling noises everywhere, reminds the viewer of the work of David Lynch.
The Coens also breathe life into four distinct characters: they’re complex, bigger than life, built on just a few strokes of action and good lines that immediately define them. Marty is obsessive and domineering in the way he stalks his wife, and just disgusting in the way he looks at and treats women: he’s the ultimate macho cowboy, with boots, open shirt showing his hairy chest, oily hair, thinking women are just objects. Ray and Abby are a lovely couple, and although she remains innocent and naïve until the end, Ray is a tortured man on the inside, doing horrible things for love and slowly growing paranoid and distrustful.
But Visser is the cherry on the top. A list of all the sins a man can accused of wouldn’t be enough to describe him. But I’ll list a few nevertheless: greedy, amoral, cowardly, ruthless. Capable of doing anything for a petty sum of money, he outdoes the viciousness of Carl and Gaer in Fargo. The way Visser is driven to accomplish his goal with complete callousness in his methods make him one of the scariest villains in modern cinema.
Blood Simple is an exciting movie full of ambiguous characters doing monstrous things, and yet they ring true, they’re disturbingly familiar. It’s a bold movie that says a lot about the darkest side of human nature, making it one of the bleakest but also most rewarding entries in the Coens’ filmography.
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh
Runtime: 99 min