The directorial certainty and confidence on display in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1984 film Blood Simple, their debut picture, is exceptional. Their command of filmic technique, their control of performances, their intense use of tone and atmosphere to enhance the film, and their knowing pastiche of film noir attributes, results in a first feature rivaled by few others. With a comparatively paltry $1.5 million dollar budget, the duo concocted a devious, amusing, formally inventive, and above all entertaining movie that resoundingly pointed the ways towards their films to come.
Bold strokes are fragrantly displayed by the Coens immediately. In selections of camera placement and maneuvers, sound amplifications, and dialogue, the brothers show no signs of a beginner’s hesitation. Their poise is clear and the film benefits a great deal from their willingness to unhesitatingly have fun with the medium and to use inventive and self-conscious directorial choices. The list is many, but some exceptional moments of technical virtuosity include: lengthy tracking shots, even some that are not always relevant to the films’ plot (Meurice’s walk to the jukebox and back); jarring close-ups of shoes, lighters, dead fish, etc.; a mastery of lighting resulting in an accomplished balance of light and shadow – this would have been a gorgeous black and white film; general camera movements amusingly obvious (the camera dollying along the bar-top, then rising up and over a passed-out drunk, as Celluloid Mavericks author Greg Merritt points to, is fantastic); the Sam Raimi-inspired camera advance in front of Ray’s house; and aural strategies that accentuate the most effective sounds, such as a dog beating his tail against the wall, a violent bug-zapper, and a finger-nails-on-the-chalkboard-type grating of a shovel on asphalt.
The final scene of the picture is a tour-de-force of technical feats with a brilliant combination of graphic violence, taught suspense though sound and image, and an illuminating feature of shafts of light coming though the bullet-ridden wall. In many ways, this lighting aspect reminded me of the window blind effect in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformista (1970).
The Coen’s also do a great job in conveying a true (perhaps somewhat mocking) sense of place and ambiance as well. We are clearly aware of the film’s Texas location – those hats, boots, and outfits signify so; and the film’s hot, muggy climate is fully achieved in shots of oscillating fans constantly in motion (moving notably slow, however) and by gleaming beads of sweat consistently of everyone’s face.
As writers, the brothers had already finely tuned their ear to expert word and sentence choices. As with the characters’ gestures, their dialogue is somewhat exaggerated and stylized, but never so much so that it becomes unbelievable. They also successfully employ a repetition of lines that are at once humorous, but also go to show the parallels between the four seedy main characters; examples include references to Ray (John Getz) being/not being a “marriage counselor;” the “less you know the better” line between Marty (Dan Hedaya) and Loren (M. Emmet Walsh), clearly instigating what ensues following the exchange; and Abby (Frances McDormand) saying, “I haven’t done anything funny,” exactly what Marty (in a different context) told Ray she would say.
Along the lines of humor in the film (no Coen brothers film yet has been totally without comedy), Blood Simple also possesses some great moments of comedic samples. Probably my personal favorite is when Ray discovers the (seemingly) dead Marty in the office. He begins to clean up the blood and move Ray. It’s a gruesome scene, with buckets of blood being dripped throughout. But, what raises the scene beyond a mere exercise in bloodletting is the fact that Meurice, unaware of what is going on behind the closed door, begins to play the Four Top’s “It’s the Same Old Song” on the jukebox in the bar. Having this up-beat Motown music playing over this grisly clean-up creates an ironic music/action union only by that point bettered by Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets and paving the way for Quentin Tarantino’s use of a similar juxtapositions in the 1990s.
The title of the film is, according to the Coen brothers, referring to the state of mind of someone after they have committed a murder, and this meditative quality is an interesting aspect of Blood Simple. For a thriller of this kind, the picture has an unusual amount of scenes and shots simply showing the characters thinking or looking. A good deal of screen time is devoted to the individuals trying to figure out what to do next, what just happened, or, in general, what is going on. These sedentary moments, aside from presenting a surprisingly thoughtful band of otherwise dimwitted misfits, also work to create the tension in which the viewer is similarly wondering about what may happen. That they are so unclear leaves room for spectator doubt as well.
Indeed, the Coens do an extraordinary job of establishing quite early that anything is very well possible in this world. Anyone could possibly get killed. As such, the tension arises out of these possibilities; motives are unclear (why would Ray touch the gun, move the body, clear up the body, etc.?) and thus we are frequently able to question why some of the characters are doing and saying what they are. As Merritt writes, “Untrusting and bewildered, the characters charge through a serpentine story, capable of killing or being killed.” If push comes to shove, as it in fact does, all four of these main individuals show that their capabilities are beyond initial (theirs and ours) expectations.
The suspense of the picture is also supremely evident in the brothers’ compositional choices, for instance when Abby is framed with the open glass window behind her, looking out into the darkness. Our eyes are constantly searching in the shadows, just waiting for something to appear, and when it does, as she lays down, the effect is solid.
In many ways, the film is about a lot of ideas, probably more than most thrillers of the time and now. The picture calls into questions of truth and its representation, conveyed pictorially in the doctored photograph showing Ray and Abby dead, when in fact that aren’t (indeed, it seems that the only things concretely dead in the film are Marty’s fish and the end of Ray’s block). There is also a continual identity confusion; characters aren’t really sure who is doing what, or even who they are really dealing with (this is emphasized at the end when Abby thinks she has killed Marty, who she didn’t even know was dead, when she had actually murdered Loren). And then there is the reoccurring motif of a lack of communication, of unspoken feelings and beliefs that would have most likely alleviated a lot of the crisis presented. Marty and Ray are both noted by Abby and being quiet, and if Ray and Abby had just opened up to each other more, several times in the picture, a lot of disaster could have been averted.
The characters crafted by the Coen duo are rich and dynamic and mostly appalling. Loren Visser, the sleazy, unscrupulous private investigator is the epitome of voraciousness and connivance. He’s also quite funny. Ray overreacts at nearly every turn and is himself a despicable characters (no sooner does he find out that for sure Abby is cheating on him then does he begin to harass and hit on a patron of his bar). But, in some ways, our sympathies are with him. Abby is a bumbling, apparently untrustworthy woman at times oblivious to reality. For this, though, we do occasionally feel sorry for her. And Ray, clearly in over his head, easily manipulated and also slow to comprehend the realities of the situations presented, is, I guess, our protagonist, our hero of sorts. The fact that these four primary characters hold no major redeeming characteristics interestingly enough doesn’t deter our attention or relation. This too is a testament to a finely formulated script and skilled direction.
As an independent feature, Blood Simple is a textbook example. Made with funds raised from private investors, created under the tutelage of the aforementioned Sam Raimi (fresh of the success of his first Evil Dead film), and promoted through its script and, uniquely, by a pre-production trailer – with Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbel – the picture made the festival rounds, appearing in New York, Toronto, and France in 1984. It would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize at 1985’s Sundance Film Festival and Joel Coen was co-winner of the Best Director award at the first-ever Independent Spirit Awards show – he shared the award with Martin Scorsese for After Hours (not bad company for a debut filmmaker). Notable in this independent film methodology though, is the exceptional skill and frame of reference for the picture. The brothers have clearly thought about the picture a great deal, with thorough storyboards, and they are cognizant of classic noir and thriller elements and are therefore able to manipulate and utilize them to great effect.
This Coen brothers neo-noir (a model they would again, and better, return to with Fargo (1996), still to my mind their best film), is a terrific movie that clearly positioned the brothers as a true filmmaking talent, destined for cinematic importance. Certainly, with the exception of only two pictures – Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004) – the filmmakers have never failed to impress and delight. Their distinctive brand of dry humor, their knowing camera maneuvers and set-ups, and their original and memorable characters are hugely noteworthy in the American independent film world (and far beyond as well).
That they have retained the “independent” moniker, even despite studio financing, big stars, and infrequently larger budgets (Intolerable Cruelty with $60,000,000 for example) is attributable in large part to a consistently imaginative style with quirky characters. It also helps that all of their films are quite good. They have never yet followed a mainstream pattern. While some consider their pictures to be condescending to (certain) audiences, they admittedly have maintained a consistency in individual preferences, not those of the movie-going masses. No Country for Old Men (2007) winning the Best Picture Oscar is hopefully a sign of bettering times.