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Blood Simple is an apt title for the Coen brothers’ debut feature.
The phrase originated in Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest, in which ‘blood simple’ describes the addled mindset of a person in the midst of violence. Those two words are also fitting when separated. This is a film about bloodshed ― and it’s the simplest, purest distillation of the themes that the Coens have spent the rest of their careers expanding on. We’re all glad they continued making movies, but they almost didn’t need to. It’s all right here: the tragicomic reality of life and crime exposed in the guise of a straightforward neo-noir.
M. Emmet Walsh plays one of the Coen’s greatest weirdoes. Private Detective Loren Visser’s every expression is an unpredictable element: murderous intent is indistinguishable from amusement. Visser isn’t the protagonist ― it’s several scenes until we even see his face ― but his voiceover introduces us to the film, and to Texas as the Coens see it. Their idiosyncratic view of the state, while purposefully styled to their tastes, is closer to reality than the Texas of Hollywood movies. ‘Down here… you’re on your own’; Visser’s mumbled dialogue plays over images of flat landscapes and stray debris lying limply on the roadside. His words are earnestly pessimistic, and perhaps would be a little obvious for the Coen brothers’ current tastes. However, it is rather perfect that Visser’s monologue is the first piece of dialogue in any Coens feature. It lets you know what you’re in for during the next 100 minutes, as well as the next 32 years.
In Blood Simple, the most recognisable face is Frances McDormand’s. The film ― which is returning to UK cinemas in the form of a shorter director’s cut, restored in 4K resolution ― was her 1984 acting debut. Despondent and neglected wife Abby is world’s away from her Oscar winning turn as Marge Gunderson in Fargo. McDormand shows her range in both of these Coens crime-comedies: Marge is centred, assured and more than a little offbeat, whereas Abby is less distinguishable. She’s low-key ― as nice and normal as you can get in a Coen brothers film. The same is true for the man she’s having an affair with: Ray (John Getz), works as a bartender for Abby’s hot-tempered husband Julian (Dan Hedaya). It’s difficult to imagine how Abby and Julian got together in the first place. They’re incompatible in every way, and so Abby’s cheating feels more like a mercy killing than a betrayal ― but as the film’s tagline states, ‘breaking up is hard to do’. Julian is determined to make it as hard as humanly possible.
Julian hires Detective Visser to find proof of the affair, and when he gets it he orders Abby and Ray’s murder. We don’t discover Julian’s plan until we’ve seen the targeted couple together: at the beginning of the film, they have sex in a dingy train-side motel after driving into the night. Their encounter is tinged with the sinister feeling of being watched, but their chemistry is quietly sweet: the two talk softly to each other, at ease in one another’s presence. In contrast to Julian’s erratic behaviour, it’s easy to empathise with Abby’s desire to be with a man who allows her to let her guard down. In a film full of loud characters who want each other dead, these two are content with just getting by in each others’ company. Would that it were so simple.
This restored version of Blood Simple offers a rare and exciting opportunity to see the classic in the cinema ― with newfound clarity.
The restoration is gorgeous, displaying Barry Sonnenfeld’s rich and layered cinematography in startling detail. The images created in Blood Simple are some of the Coens’ best, sequenced in a way that demonstrates an unbelievable level of craft for first time feature filmmakers. It is one of cinema’s most impressive debuts.
Two sequences grant Blood Simple its classic status.
The central 13 minute set piece is next level; one man under pressure versus another man who can’t quite stay dead ― but certainly won’t be alive for much longer. The film is unique in the way that it takes generic characters and story and stirs in one cinematically unusual piece of logic: what if this happened to real people? There are no cool, calm and collected criminals in Blood Simple. They all sweat profusely, and nobody is sure of anything ― even the things they think they’re sure about. When they die, they don’t die with dignity. They die in a state of fear and panic, desperately clinging to life by the tips of their soil-stained fingernails. Ray’s infamous attempted body disposal is so hair-tearingly excruciating that it becomes unbearably hilarious. Blood Simple is a comedy so black that you’ll leave the cinema covered in soot and blinking in the sunlight.
The final 15 minutes are equally as ingenious. Blood Simple constantly shifts perspectives; every half hour or so you’re handed off to a new protagonist. After leaving her to simmer in the background for most of the film, the Coens finally bring Abby to the fore in the final scene. It’s McDormand’s moment to shine, and she does so in a tension filled sequence that rivals anything the Coen brothers have ever done. Abby is the right character to finish off with, and her chess moves ― while cheer-inducing ― never step over into the unrealistic. She’s no mega-genius, but she outwits her counterparts through sheer resourcefulness.
Still, even the best of us are fallible. We root for Abby as we root for any final girl, and her triumphs are rousing, but we should know better than to think the Coens would let any of their characters win outright. Trust them to use the film’s dying breath to laugh in our face.