Hidden Gems: Blood Simple
By Michael Bentley
May 17, 2005
Over the years, the Coen Brothers (Ethan and Joel) have successfully emerged as one of the better filmmaking teams of all-time. Though they have never had a smash hit that made the year-end list on the box office charts, they have consistently made enjoyable, smart, well-crafted flicks that are destined to be viewed countless times once people discover them. Further, none of their films is universally regarded as the best. Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? all have legions of followers. Well, now it is time for more people to discover another Coen classic: their first feature film, Blood Simple.
The basic plot of the low-budget Blood Simple is that Abby (played by a young Frances McDormand) is cheating on her jealous husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) with Ray (John Getz). Marty, who owns a shady bar, suspects this and has an even shadier private investigator (M. Emmett Walsh) spy on them. Soon, he learns the truth and hires the PI to fix the problem. But for better or worse, none of the characters know the true motives of anyone else. Things go... mildly wrong, and this leads to a terrifying, unforgettable climax.
The tightly wound story is an honorable nod to classic film noir. The title of the movie actually comes from great noir author Dashiel Hammett (in his novel Red Harvest), referring to the time after someone has committed murder when they are in a very scatterbrained, fearful state of mind. Several themes are used throughout the movie, including repeated shots of the barren Texas landscape to further show the desolate, seamy mood of the characters. In Coen films, location is practically another character. Music also plays a key role - especially the simple repetitive piano notes from the score, as well as the Motown classic "It’s the Same Old Song" playing several times on the jukebox in Marty's bar.
McDormand, who has become a Coen regular (of course, it helps that she is married to director Joel Coen) hits just the right notes in her film debut. Abby is still young, naive, and innocent, but also tough when she needs to be. Hedaya is great as the no-nonsense, bloodthirsty, jealous, and revengeful Marty. Getz is also solid as Ray, but perhaps the strongest performance is from Walsh as the PI. He is a sinister monster and wholly untrustworthy. His sly, evil grin is just perfect for such a loser of a man. It almost makes you want to root for the guy, or at the least it makes you wonder if he'll kill or be killed.
If I were to point out any weaknesses in Blood Simple it would be that the film is very ambiguous about its course or the motives of its characters. It is sometimes difficult to establish exactly whether someone's intentions are good or bad. Yet, it is hard to fault the film for this, when it is simultaneously one of its greatest strengths! I am reminded of a great line by the PI early on in the film: "I'm supposed to do a murder - two murders - and just trust you not to go simple on me and do something stupid. I mean real stupid. Now why should I trust you?" This film has some blood curdling moments, some great suspense, twists, turns, and even some humor (a dead end street is the source for a laugh or two), and yet it is so... simple (for lack of a better word) that I could envision this as a successful silent movie back in the day.
Note that a new director's cut of Blood Simple is available on DVD. The Coens reedited some of the film by shortening or removing some of the shots in order to tighten up the story to focus more on the key characters. Little time is wasted on exposition. Also, "It’s the Same Old Song" was (thankfully) put back in, as previous incarnations of the movie on home video featured Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer." They received some criticism for all this, since the original version is no longer available (similar to the release of the Star Wars trilogy on DVD). However, this is still a gem and is definitely worth a look.
The Verdict: A.