Blood Simple. (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The world is full o’ complainers. An’ the fact is, nothin’ comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin’ can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y’know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, ‘n watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… That’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.
In its first five minutes, writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen are able to separate their magnificent debut film from its contemporaries. In most thrillers, characters tend to start off mild. Circumstances pile up and the folks we follow are eventually driven to desperation. In “Blood Simple,” we meet the four main characters and already we sense they are in a state of distress. It feels that all it takes is one more push for them to reach a breaking point. By starting off high, tension need not accumulate for us to care. It is already present and so we focus on the chess game being played by characters who think they know what’s going on but in actuality not one of them has a complete idea. But we do. And that’s what makes the story a captivating experience.
The plot revolves around a Texas bar owner, Marty (Dan Hedaya), who suspects his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), might cheating on him and so he hires a private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) to follow her around. Abby sleeps with Ray (John Getz), Marty’s employee, and soon photos make it onto the husband’s desk. The thought of his wife being in bed with a lowly employee eats up Marty so badly that he hires the same P.I. to kill them for $10,000. Mr. Loren Visser suggests that Ray goes fishing; he will get a telephone call once the deed is done. But this is not a straight murder story. And it isn’t even about revenge or the money.
The movie is about how one small mistake can become an avalanche so powerful stopping it becomes an impossibility. Soon people are making assumptions based on the limited—at times myopic—knowledge they have and even more mistakes are made. It becomes increasingly clear that the only way to survive is to make the smartest decisions you can and ride through it. But even if you do, you are not guaranteed to see the light of day. Bodies pile up in this story. Every single one makes an impact. A certain character knows how Event A is connected to Event B. How is the equation changed for the other characters who are in dire need of this knowledge so he or she can make the best decisions in regards to Event C? Does anything change? You bet your bottom dollar.
The Coens possess a preternatural ability to jolt us into paying attention, whether it be newspaper hitting a glass a window during a potentially revealing exchange or a shovel being scraped down a highway in the middle of the night, there is beauty and poetry in keeping us on our toes. Notice that even when characters are being shown at rest—on a chair, a sofa, a bed—the camera is angled in an uncomfortable way or an important object sits in the background staring right back at us. There is constant reminder that there is no escape from the problems at hand. Even one’s dreams are corrupted into nightmares by waking suspicions.
I admired its use of silence. Here is a suspense-thriller that does not rely on score to communicate what’s about to happen or to signal what the viewers should feel. Modern pictures across genres can learn a textbook’s worth of information on here. Joel and Ethan Coen trust the nature of their material and the manner in which they’ve put together the images so that we feel we have a stake in the matter every step of the way. Why use sound as a cue when the point is for us to be with the picture in every moment, not five or three seconds from it?
An unforgettable dialogue-free sequence involves a disposal of a body along a lonely road. There is blood but no overt violence is shown. Yet I caught myself looking away from the screen because I found it to be terribly sad that a character we come to describe as good and well-intentioned feels compelled to do something unimaginable. Because of a mistake, an assumption, we are forced to look at this character under a different light. When the chips are down and the pressure is up, perhaps we are all capable of the darkest feats.
“Blood Simple.” is filled to the brim with humanity. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t care about the twists and turns and the ironic (and tragic) details imbued into their marrow. Using a typical murder premise, the Coens are able to make us feel their love for the movies. There is confidence and specificity in every breath of their feature’s entire running time. They take risks. They demand that their viewers be engrossed. This should be required viewing for aspiring filmmakers.