Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen Brothers | 1hr 39min

Like so many Coen Brothers films, the primary complication of Blood Simple hinges on an absurd series of misunderstandings, lies, and botched schemes, and yet this is no farce like Burn After Reading, or even a black comedy like Fargo. Perhaps a more serious-minded film like No Country For Old Men makes for a closer comparison to what they are accomplishing in their staggering debut, though even where that Western thriller leaves a haunting ambiguity over its ensemble of fatefully connected characters, this thickly plotted neo-noir winds towards a dark, ironic conclusion. Everyone here has their own hidden motives, but as fate would have it, they all inevitably cancel each other out. From the Coens’ omniscient perspective though, dramatic irony is the binding force that keeps these characters in the dark, driving towards a final showdown between the remaining survivors which, even at that pivotal point, continues to obscure their identities from each other.

Perhaps Emmet Walsh’s drawling private detective, Loren Visser, is the closest of them all to seeing the whole picture for what it is, being hired by bar owner Marty to spy on his wife and employee, Abby and Ray, who he believes are having an affair. Given Visser’s dark humour and streak of violence, he acts a precursor to Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, dealing out a warped sort of justice with chilling proficiency. Much like his targets though, Walsh’s character possesses his own weaknesses. He may be the sort of stoic monster who doesn’t even flinch when there is a fly buzzing around his face, but oversights like leaving his lighter at the scene of a crime indicate that he is less than faultless.

Bleak landscape photography of Texan fields, roads, and oil rigs, defining its southern American inhabitants by their surroundings.

Visser’s decision to turn on his client and murder him rather than those he is sent to kill is a twist of the knife in a narrative that turns what would have been an easy assassination into a confused mess for all involved. Leaving Abby’s gun near the Marty’s body should easily frame her as the culprit to whoever comes across it, though Visser doesn’t count on that person being Ray, who instantly goes to work cleaning up the crime he believes his lover has committed. Additionally, Abby’s hallucinations of Marty’s angry ghost mix in with the reality of Visser coming after her to finish the job, setting up a biting punchline after she shoots her pursuer in the film’s final minutes.

“I’m not afraid of you, Marty.”

“Well ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”

The Coens prove themselves to be great character writers from the start in Blood Simple, crafting some truly compelling, morally grey heroes and villains caught in a web of deceit and murder.

Frances McDormand may be Walsh’s equal in her screen debut as Visser’s final victim, Abby, though for an actress who would become known for her roles as intelligent, outspoken women, her presence here carries a surprising power in its silence, quietly trying to survive the men around her. In fact, it is remarkable just how much the Coens resist the urge to fall back on their dialogue as a narrative device here in Blood Simple, demonstrating immense confidence as first-time directors by carrying their story along on large stretches of purely visual filmmaking.

That assurance is importantly there in the editing, as we see characters wordlessly piece together misleading clues to arrive at incorrect conclusions about what is going on, as well as slick transitions that whisk them from one location to the next. In the formal details too though, Blood Simple is subtly foreshadowing all the deaths to come, constantly returning to the dead fish lying on Marty’s desk as if to draw a connection between these rotting creatures and the characters around them.

Strong iconography of the fish sitting on Marty’s desk. Like the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis representing its protagonist, here they are putting forward a similar notion with its ensemble – four characters matching four fish.

Tiny quirks like these go a long way in many Coen brothers films to create a distinct setting defining its inhabitants, and that trademark begins right here in their Southern Gothic vision of small-town Texas, far removed from the bright, sunny exteriors of classic Hollywood Westerns. Perhaps Visser is the closest thing we get to a cowboy in this film, though even his craftiness is far more in line with crime thriller archetypes. On every level of its construction, from the narrative to the low-key lighting, this is a neo-noir, soaked in the smell of sweaty bars and beer-stained carpets.

Neon lights dispersed around the grimy bar, dimly illuminating its dingy interior and creating some masterful compositions.
The Coen brothers continuing to use the shape and colour of their lighting as an integral part of their mise-en-scène, projecting a red, wavy backdrop on the ceiling in this low angle.

Director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld does some of his best work here as well in his first of three collaborations with the Coens, heavily contrasting the darkness of the night-time settings with the bright glare of artificial light sources. Around Marty’s bar, they find some glorious compositions inside the pink, neon frames that adorn windows and walls, while a jukebox and other signs shed a dim assortment of colours around the scarcely populated room. Outside, car headlights pierce rain-glazed windscreens and silhouette characters in dire situations, and the Coens make especially creepy use of this when Ray finds a still-alive Marty trying to make an escape from his backseat. Like a pitiful, wounded animal, the bar owner crawls along the gravel road, backlit by the car’s two harsh beams cutting through the darkness. With his face completely obscured, his outline becomes entirely bestial, and in that moment, he is reduced to the agonising pain that has been inflicted upon him and his most basic instinct to survive.

Certainly among the Coens’ best-lit films, using car headlights to inform the neo-noir atmosphere.

Joining the Coens and McDormand here on the list of artists making an outstanding film debut in Blood Simple is composer Carter Burwell, whose entrance arrives in an eerie, minimalistic piano motif that often echoes through the film’s silent passages. With its sinister, high-pitched melody playing over a steady, sustained bassline, it superbly complements the rough, rural landscapes of Texas where Visser’s murders mount up, edging ever closer to our heroine. When that confrontation finally arrives too, the formal pay-off is immense, pulling together a pair of strangers who are only at odds because of the selfish wishes of a dead man neither particularly liked. Even without attaching our perspective to any single character, the Coens are meticulously dedicated to creating a complete immersion into this grimy, moral wasteland, and armed with a talent for deeply riveting storytelling, they navigate its nefarious backroads towards an understanding of its place in a senseless, godless universe.

Blocks of blue light shine on McDormand as she lies in bed, crafting a pressing claustrophobia.

Blood Simple is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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