There are a lot of crime movies which turn on the theme of “nobody knows anybody.” But a much rarer thing – and much harder to pull off as a filmmaker – is the movie where “everybody should know everybody, but they don’t.” In these movies, the plot complications turn on the fact that the characters don’t understand each other or the things that are going on, but they would if they could have honest conversations with each other. For whatever reason, those conversations don’t happen, and the crime thriller parts happen as a result. In all of movie history, there is no finer example of this than the Coen Brothers’ debut film Blood Simple.
Abby (Frances McDormand, making her acting debut) is cheating on her bar-owner husband Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) with one of his bartenders, Ray (John Getz). Marty hires a sleazy private eye (peerless character actor M. Emmet Walsh) to follow them, and kill them once the affair is confirmed. The P.I. figures out a different plan, but as often happens in the Coens’ movies, the characters’ plans are doomed to malfunction.
As it all falls apart and the characters are forced into extreme situations, we as the audience know everything. However, it’s not until the movie’s final line of dialogue that the characters have even an inkling of what is really going on in their lives. “I’m not a marriage counsleor,” Ray tells Abby in the film’s first scene. That line of dialogue leads to an inadvertent joke in a later scene between Marty and Ray, which leads to angry accusations from Marty, which Abby plays into by pure coincidence with a throwaway line of dialogue later on … the movie’s plot is a spiderweb of distrust spun by luck, hate, and other circumstances out of anyone’s control.
And yet it’s very much a humanist movie. The knock on the Coens throughout their careers has been that they hold their characters in contempt. For some of their movies, especially Barton Fink, that might be true, but for Blood Simple it definitely is not. In many of Abby’s and Ray’s conversations during the movie, they are so close to figuring out what has happened, but they can’t make that final connection because there is a deep core of distrust in their relationship. Each of them allows Marty to plant an idea in their heads in a different way, and that idea keeps them from opening up to each other until it’s far too late. Maybe they could have sorted it all out, maybe not, but the only way they’ll have a chance is with some real love or real trust. Ray is even about to get there, as he sincerely tells Abby “I love you” right before the film’s climax, but by then the trouble has gotten too far out of control.
I enjoyed all of the actors in this movie – even Getz’ odd Texas accent didn’t hurt him too much – but Walsh is the one who really struck me upon this re-watching. Rather like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, his big asset is unpredictability. He’s capable of anything in any scene, and that’s what makes the character especially scary. McDormand is good throughout, but Walsh’s elemental nature forces her to up her game in the film’s terrifying final scene; together, they make it a conclusion for the ages.
It’s impressive how fully formed the Coens were as filmmakers in their very first picture. Working with director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld (who would collaborate with the Coens in several more films and go on to direct the Men in Black movies), they create some of the most beautiful shots of their entire careers. The camera is an impartial observer, showing the audience everything that the characters wish they knew was going on, but it also adopts the point of view of the characters in incredibly effective ways.
In one scene, the camera pauses in a shot from behind Marty’s head, looking up at the ceiling fan as it spins its lazy route. Switch to a shot from the fan’s point of view, of almost equal length, looking down at Marty. It is a patient sequence, giving us as the audience all the time we need to get inside Marty’s head. In the next scene Marty asks the P.I. to do a job for him, but we already know what the job is going to be. We’ve done the same slow burn Marty has done, and we’ve stewed within his rage right along with him.
“What I know about is Texas,” Walsh tells the audience at the beginning of the film. “Out here, you’re on your own.” Of course, one the movie’s central points is that it’s not only Texas; we’re all on our own everywhere. But even among the Coens’ well-decorated filmography, Blood Simple is special in showing us why we are on our own. In No Country For Old Men the characters are at the mercy of fate, where Anton Chigurh flips a coin because “I got here the same way the coin did”; in Miller’s Crossing or Burn After Reading the characters are motivated by their most selfish desires. Alone among those movies, Blood Simple shows us that it’s really both: the characters’ decisions combine with random chance to bind them together. Their story shows us that we make our own choices for our own reasons, and those choices put us on a path whose destination is unclear.
Reviewed by Mark Young