A quintessential American independent film
from the eighties and still a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. Grim,
gory and darkly comic, BLOOD SIMPLE was the first feature by the
Coen Brothers, introducing a brilliant and distinctly American
voice into a moviemaking landscape that definitely needed it–and
if you ask me still does.
Fact: I’m a HUGE fan of the work of Ethan and Joel Coen. The
Coens have lost much of their indie cred after becoming Academy
Award darlings (with 2007’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN), but I still
agree with Empire Magazine’s claim that “In a perfect
world all movies would be made by the Coen Brothers”.
BLOOD SIMPLE, which appeared in 1984, was the Coens’ very
first film, jump starting not just an important filmmaking
career but also the indie film movement as a whole, introducing
talents like cinematographer (and current directorial big shot)
Barry Sonnenfeld and actors John Getz, Dan Hedeya and Frances
McDormand. Budgeted at $1.5 million, it was lensed on location
in Texas and released by the legendary midnight movie impresario
Ben Barenholz, who also shepherded the early films of
David Lynch and
the guy knows talent when he sees it.
The film was a massive hit, with a formula–an
unapologetically movie-mad noir framework juiced up with lurid
twists (Joel Coen began his career as an editor on THE EVIL
DEAD, and the experience carried over)–that has proven quite
influential. Indie icons like Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer
and John Dahl owe more than a little to BLOOD SIMPLE.
The version of this film available on DVD, however, is not
the one released back in 1984. It’s a reedited “Director’s Cut”
with the “boring parts” removed, making it run a few minutes
shorter. The film still plays quite well, perhaps even better
than it did initially, but purists are advised to track down the
old Universal VHS, currently the only source for BLOOD SIMPLE’S
The young and attractive Abby is having an affair with Ray, a
barkeeper at a Texas salon owned by her husband Marty. The
latter has grown suspicious of his none-too-loving wife and
hired Visser, an overweight detective, to shadow her. Visser
comes back with revealing photographs of Abby and Ray.
Marty heads to Ray’s house the next morning to confront the
adulterous couple, and ends up suffering a whopping kick in the
nuts by his own wife. Pissed, Marty re-contacts Visser,
requesting that he kill Abby and Ray. Visser follows through, or
at least says he does, again with photos to prove it. But the
pictures are doctored, and Ray and Abby are still alive. Visser
it seems has his own dastardly plans, which begin with him
fatally shooting Marty in his own office.
That night Ray turns up at the bar and discovers Marty’s
cadaver. Fearing he’ll be fingered for the killing, Ray decides
to dispose of the corpse in the middle of a nearby field–but
Marty, it turns out, isn’t quite dead, so Ray ends up burying
Afterward Ray just isn’t the same. He’s gone “Blood Simple,”
the apparently psychotic state one enters into after committing
a murder. Abby comes to fear him, but in truth it’s Visser who’s
the scary one, as he proves by shooting Ray and then stalking
Abby through her apartment…during which, unexpectedly, he’s
the one who bears the brunt of the abuse!
know the Coen Brothers through later films like FARGO and THE
BIG LEBOWSKI may not recognize their hand in BLOOD SIMPLE,
although it remains one of their most distinctive and bravura
works. For that matter it’s among the most stylish and assured
films of any sort to appear in the last few decades.
Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography remains unsurpassed in its
dynamic use of color and shadow, and the ever-mobile camerawork
is unfailingly inventive. Of course this makes for a
self-conscious and even show-offy film, but it’s kept afloat by
the Coens’ playful, mocking touch, as demonstrated in the film’s
most famous shot: a slow pan down a bar that pauses to jump over
the head of a passed-out drunk.
Narrative-wise the film is also impressive. Ethan and Joel
Coen are among the small–very small–handful of modern
moviemakers whose writing ability matches their filmmaking
prowess. The dialogue here is extensive, with a flow and rhythm
worthy of David Mamet (though without the quotable zingers of
the Coens’ later films).
The film overall is richly deserving of all the mainstream
attention it’s received over the years, but don’t let that put
you off. The Coens’ love of the macabre and grotesque, inherited
from THE EVIL DEAD’S Sam Raimi, is in ample evidence.
Particularly representative is a gruesomely funny bit where John
Getz tries to clean up a pool of blood but only succeeds in
spreading it all over, and the succeeding sequence in which he
slooooowly buries Dan Hedeya alive. And then there’s
the final confrontation between Francis McDormand and the
psychotic M. Emmett Walsh, which is Hitchcock-worthy in its
agonizing suspense, but with a diabolical angle that places it
in a category of its own. Not unlike the film overall.
River Road Productions/Circle Films
Director: Joel Coen
Producer: Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Editing: “Roderick Jaynes” (Ethan & Joel Coen), Don Wiegmann
Cast: M. Emmett Walsh, Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedeya,
Samm-Art Williams, Deborah Neumann, Raquel Gavia, Van Brooks,
Senor Marco, William Creamer, Loren Bivens, Bob McAdams, Shannon
Sedwick, Nancy Finger, Holly Hunter