It’s not uncommon to hear lamentations for American cinema of the 1980s. It’s no surprise in one sense. After all, who couldn’t miss the vibrancy, experimentation and often lush splendour of their home-grown ‘New Wave’ of the 1970s? Still it’s not really true that American cinema went into demise after that decade; killed, as some might claim, by the quest for blockbusters inspired by the successes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. What really shook up American cinema in the 1980s was the introduction of video. As the technology became more available it became less and less important, or indeed necessary at all, to lure people into the cinema; to demand they make a commitment to a time and a place in order to watch a film. This radically altered the landscape for film producers and fans alike.
In this newly tailored cinema, American genre titles took on a new life and fervour. It seems only suitable then that the rise (and rise and rise) of Ethan and Joel Coen found its start in this period. Hailing from Minnesota the two took their cues from the wonderful success of Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert and their film, The Evil Dead1. A genuine independent production, homegrown and financed, it found much of its cult status (and in ‘video nasty’ Britain, its controversy) through the market permeability of the video cassette. Similarly independent, financed through door to door soliciting and a short trailer assembled with appearance by Bruce Campbell, Blood Simple takes on many of the shades of hard-boiled noir but also reveals a distinctive new voice.
Of course that ‘distinctive new voice’ comes with its detractors and, for those who find the Coens’ work lacking, the object of their complaints is already fully formed with this film. That complaint usually centres on a lack of sympathy for their characters. It’s not too far a step to find a cruel glee in observing these unfortunate rats navigate the treacherous, and indeed unconquerable, maze they find themselves in. Of course the criticism is limited in its appeal here. Above all else Blood Simple is simmered in the stock of the edgy crime thrillers of the 40s and 50s; a post-war world where moral character was invariably hedged in self-interest and convenience; a massive departure from much of the cinema that preceded it. World War II altered everyone’s notions of what ‘mankind’ really could and wanted to accomplish. On top of the fact that this film deals in archetypes rather than fully rounded individuals is the film’s own internal logic which largely serves to question where any morality might dwell in the first place. It’s a grim picture and it cuts some corners but there’s certainly a number of unusual moral stand-offs to be found within.
The film’s opening scenes bring us on a strange path as static compositions showcasing Texas’ vast horizons twin with a brief voiceover from one of the film’s main characters (we’ll meet him later and he will repulse us) before suddenly giving way to speed and modernity; headlights and a car thundering down the open road. It’s like we dipped a toe in the world of Terence Malick before stumbling down David Lynch’s rabbit-hole, Lost Highway. Of course if this intro seems plucked from Lynch – the clambering darkness, the road markings sweeping beneath as the camera charges forward, and the cloying silence which seems so potent as to muffle voices even as they seek to break its hold – we must recall that this particular alien stretch of tarmac is older and arguably all the more cruel than that particular auteur’s world. Sitting in this vehicle, barrelling through the night, we find Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand). They are lovers but their relationship does not bear the seal of ‘good society.’ Abby is married to another man and fears there is someone following them, spying on them, to reveal their secrets to her husband. Working back to that original voiceover it turns out she’s completely right. Her affair is no secret to Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), her husband, the financially successful and possessive owner of the town’s local watering hole. He’s hired a private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to provide photographic proof of his suspicions.
It’s that PI who introduces us to the world of Blood Simple in that opening monologue; a curious statement about the inescapability of chance and of Communist Russia where, at least in theory, a system is in place that ensures people must pull for one another. This is not Russia he goes on to assure us… this is Texas. Every man must fend for himself. Angered by his wife’s infidelity Marty can’t help but crave vengeance. After all, heaping insult upon injury, the man who stole his wife was on his payroll. We come to find that if there is any sort of honour or nobility in this place then it takes the form of patriarchal macho posturing. With his wife in the arms of another man something must be done to redress the balance. The nameless2 PI is just the man for the job. Overweight, dappled with perspiration and seemingly amused only by his own misanthropy he is the very essence of cinematic sleaze. Referencing Soviet Russia once again as he meets with the cuckold he remarks that the average wage there is a mere 50 cents a day. He’s about to receive a lump sum of $10,000 for his services. What would the Soviet’s make of that?
Of course it seems obvious that it’s not a desire for financial gain that propels the PI but greed and perhaps a perverse realisation that he’s just the sort of person who can profiteer from such ugly circumstances. Being so keyed into unchecked greed, the PI recognises that the most straightforward route may not necessarily be the most desirable. As Marty will soon find out, by hiring this emissary of sleaze he has left himself vulnerable. After all, you are always vulnerable when you stand as the only person in a relationship who benefits everyone more by being dead than alive. He’ll soon learn what living by the sword can earn.
So develops this moral quagmire where intentions and allegiances are all open to question. In this sense the film’s greatest strength might also be classified as its most prominent weakness. Fueled largely by archetype, though always with a knowing eye on the formulas of classic Hollywood, the impenetrable intent of each player is veiled as much by a lack of genuine characterising as by the vagaries of the plot itself. The most prominent relationship within is that shared between Ray and Abby who, though lovers, seem to share an uneasy relationship. Abby’s husband is credibly stultifying and mean-spirited which might legitimise her need to flee but there’s a feeling of convenience to how closely she falls from the home nest. Meanwhile Ray hates Marty, so sleeping with his wife would seem an excellent thumbing of the nose at the man; a mean-spirited gesture that may well have informed Abby’s end of the deal too. Nonetheless as things go badly wrong and Marty’s body surfaces, Ray bites the bullet and tries to cover for his lover whom he believes is responsible for the crime.
The questions raised in the central couple’s relationship do seem to find more hold with the character of Ray. Marty’s threats of Abby’s unfaithfulness shake Ray. Even before the body shows up he questions her fidelity and her motives. After all, if she’s willing to cheat on her husband with him then why wouldn’t she cheat on him with yet another man? Likely the question really burning in Ray’s head is why he cares so much about the answer in the first place. Whether it’s love, a sense of responsibility or a self-interest to try and make the whole messy affair go away that drives him he certainly takes the full plunge.
All the while, demure as ever, Abby watches on and wonders just what’s got Ray so riled up. Her motives are all the more troubling because she is less a person than she is a fulcrum through which all other events find origin. She’s either a near angel or the most fiendish mechanism in the entire plot. Her character certainly has roots in the femme fatale of classic noir but she’s a different breed to those women because her motives seem entirely ambiguous. It seems then that our own cynicism about people becomes the arbiter for interpreting this series of increasingly unfortunate events. Finally we have the PI. If the motives of the wife, her lover and the husband all possess shades of grey it’s still hard to pitch his behaviour as anything short of sociopathic. He’s perhaps an embodiment for happenstance and the cruel fate which he himself gives voice to in the film’s opening moments but his self-satisfied laughter and active role in the story suggest he’s simply a wretch seeking to get by like the others.
Although a fledgling effort Blood Simple seems hugely assured. Starting out a long relationship, on and off the screen, with director Joel Coen, McDormand is particularly strong as the femme fatale/innocent bystander. Pretty in a slightly untraditional way she maintains an uneasy sway over events without ever convincing us one way or the other of her true intention if, it has to be said, she ever held such a thing in the first place. Meanwhile Getz and Hedaya work well playing their respective macho stereotypes; the former gentlemanly and ruggedly tough while the latter is unashamedly brutish but, in his need for control, all the more vulnerable. With all that being said it’s M. Emmet Walsh who steals the show as the slimy private investigator. His every word and gesture makes the skin crawl as he shapes events seemingly as much for the pleasure of breaking his word as for the promise of financial gain. More active in the plot and less ethereal he might seem a forerunner to Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men if that character had not been the creation of another artist, author Cormac McCarthy. The PI is no force of nature or chance. He is simply the unfortunate end-product of a self-absorbed society.
Framing all this is an oppressive mise-en-scene overseen by director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld. Largely lingering in darkness, the edges of frames often have objects or shadows breaching them, straining the composition and developing a ceaseless sense of unease. Elsewhere, seemingly as a continued visual motif, many of the film’s key locations have large exterior windows that are free from any sort of curtains or blinds. It’s an unusual touch and at times plays openly into the narrative but it also suggests that, aside from the literal openness of these windows, this is a place where privacy is impossible. If you try and maintain it then someone may just peer in and, should they not be able to see what they need, then it’s no extra trouble to jimmy open the front door. Walsh’s PI makes a living from usurping the private and in this little corner of Texas it seems your business is everyone else’s too. The mournful minimalist piano score that plays throughout adds further to this dangerous world. Though playful here and there with its dynamics – certain match cuts revealing the Coens’ primary training3 and a few camera manoeuvres, most notably a shot that follows McDormand as she slumps backwards onto her bed, revealing nods to Hitchcock – Blood Simple mostly keeps things as the title would suggest; crushingly direct.
It’s that directness that is problematic depending on your point of view. The phrase that gives this film its title is drawn from author Dashiell Hammett who coined it to voice the mindset of a person repeatedly exposed to violence. Adding to its bluntness the Coens’ preferred spelling of the title ends with a period, “Blood Simple.“ Provocative and dramatically compelling all that might be but it also requires viewers to jump onboard with a large variety of assumptions about human beings. To assert that chance is cruel and that men are no better certainly can’t help but be true some times but Blood Simple’s dynamics are often so single-minded and self-absorbed, so dependent on the story’s own uninterrupted sense of self, that the ambiguities and internal struggles of the characters can fall flat. Casting an eye back to the noir of the 40s and 50s the Coens’ creation may find its best footing as a diverting slice of black entertainment rather than as a character study or statement on the foibles of man. Whether that’s complaint or compliment is for the individual to decide.
With what we know now it’s easy to get excited about the prospect of Blood Simple and what it represents. It was a very assured introduction for two of American cinema’s current leading lights. The core idea here, that one evil deed, left unchecked, can quickly evolve into something insurmountable for all around, would go on to inform much of the brothers’ later cinema. No doubt it is that same idea that informs the duo’s detractors. The cinema of the Coens’ is undeniably shaped by cruelty, both man’s treatment of his fellow man but also the inescapable logic of entropy. These being fictional pieces, although Fargo jokingly came tagged as a true story and some similar steps were taken with this film’s promotion, the Coens must take responsibility as authors for the misery they heap on their characters. If that’s a crime then charge them guilty but for their fans it’s as easy to argue that through their meticulous constructs all they reveal is the absurd meanness of human spirit. In seedy bars, in desert wastelands, in snow covered towns you’ll always find those that pull down others as they try to keep themselves afloat. There’s hope in there too but this isn’t the film for that. Brutish, slick and teasingly ambivalent Blood Simple is the perfect starter kit for those who are new to the Coens’ work and, with its solid narrative arc and immersive aesthetic, it could easily be pitched as their most immediately satisfying and welcoming piece. We’ll leave it up to you as to whether or not you’d want to be welcomed to such a place.
1 At one point in the 80s, an apartment in Los Angeles was home to Joel and Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, Holly Hunter and, keeping Evil Dead in mind, Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel.
2 He is never referred to by name within the film but, for those paying close attention, his prominently featured cigarette lighter is engraved ‘Loren.’ In the script his full moniker is Loren Visser although the film’s end credits name him only as ‘Private Detective.’
3 The film’s editing is credited to two names, a Don Wiegmann who holds no other credits on the IMDb aside from this film, and Roderick Jaynes, which is a pseudonym Joel and Ethan Coen operate under as editors.