Director: Joel Coen Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen Starring: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya Runtime: 99 min Rating: 14A
The Coen brothers’ debut film, directed by Joel Coen but written by both siblings, is truly a symbol of how much their work has evolved from the days of 1984. It is also, however, a symbol of the consistent quality and singularity that Coen films tend to have. Set to a more sombre atmosphere, Blood Simple is a riveting tale of crime and hatred that provides a perfect introduction to the brothers’ work.
When rowdy bar owner Julian Mart (Dan Hedaya) sheds light on his wife Abby’s (Frances McDorman) infidelities with bar tender Ryan (John Getz) after hiring a private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh), he sets out to kill them by soliciting the detective’s services once more, this time commissioning him for murder. Making use of Julian’s weaknesses, detective Loren Visser decides to fake the murder, and what starts out as the perfect plot ends up putting in motion a series of crimes that will inflict collateral damage on everyone surrounding the tremulous plan.
The film is a great atmospheric success. Texas is a perfect setting for the activities in which the characters engage. The sweat, the heat, and the landscape all provide a feeling of austerity and aloofness that serves the mysterious and demure characters. The acting in Blood Simple suits the low-budget film perfectly. Julian and Ryan are just as frigid as one would expect righteous Texan gentlemen to be, and M. Emmet Walsh as the slimy investigator Loren provides the perfect amount of what could be explained as a type of comic relief. His interactions with Julian make for very special parts of the film, and seeing as it is with him that the true destructive force of the film rests, the character is interesting, but just the right amount of reptilian to cause conflicting emotions in the viewer and create a good dynamic with the rest of the characters with which he interacts. The film also stars a very young Frances McDormand, who in this case performs a very different character from those played in newer Coen brother films. She is serious and passionate this time around, and even though Abby is set to be a fragile southern belle, her character completely surpasses the men in her ability for destruction. Abby’s true strength is one of the film’s strongest aspects, and she is full of surprise and retribution.
The film’s tension is very well created and maintained throughout the film. Dealing with very dark subject matter and events, it could be easy for a film with as many plot points as Blood Simple to lose its train of thought. However, the events carry out well, and they provide congruency that makes the story enjoyable. There is nothing less satisfactory than a tangled storyline that loses focus in the middle of events. Luckily, the Coen brother’s script is consistent, and they combine the right amount of tension with the right amount of action. The film is well shot and lit, and the cinematography excels at bringing out the best of the barren landscape. Filled with close ups of the characters’ faces full of sweat and disdain, emotion is really carried through the actors, and framing is an integral part of this process.
Special mention should be made of the film’s soundtrack. The title piece “Blood Simple,” composed by Carter Burwell, has a very simple tune and melody, but it fits perfectly with the film, not to mention that it is incredibly easy to memorize and recognize. The music maintains the dryness of the rest of the film, but it is beautiful and powerful, and does not go unnoticed.
Blood Simple is a great watch not only because it is essentially a good film, but also because it shows a more serious, less whimsically driven side of the Coen brothers’ filmography. While it retains certain exaggerated and fantastical elements that usually permeate their films, it is a more arid endeavour, and it stays focused on providing a rugged storyline about deceit and hatred. The Coens are experts in giving their films a time and a place, and presenting characters with individual personalities that make them recognizable. This film provides a solid foundation for what would become a career full of interesting and multi-faceted characters, and the true magic of the film lies in the fact that while it is a very serious film about intrigue, it has been critically acclaimed precisely because it has that instantly recognizable, invaluable Coen element that creates a completely unique noir experience.