This feature originally ran on January 21, 2015.
Welcome to the first installment of a new recurring feature here at Consequence of Sound: DNA. Once a month, we’ll be analyzing early productions by storied filmmakers to examine their hallmarks, elements, and styles, charting what remained and what were left behind. To kick it off, this month we have the Coen Brothers’ 1985 debut feature, Blood Simple, the story of a bartender, his lover, her husband, and the contract killer he hires, in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary this week. Let’s begin.
Blood Simple lays the groundwork for a number of themes the Coens would revisit and refine throughout their career. The senselessness of violence and betrayal is one example; just as in Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and The Man Who Wasn’t There — Blood Simple’s most obvious descendants — schemes and betrayals implode with bangs and whimpers, leaving everyone in its wake worse for the wear.
Fuzzy, short-sighted thinking is a staple of Coen characters, who hatch too-simple schemes without considering the myriad complications that are bound to arise. Often, the monkey wrench emerges as an unpredictable character, an amoral outsider who’s trusted in spite of their unsavory countenance. In Blood Simple, it’s M. Emmet Walsh as shady P.I. Loren Visser, whose natural inclination towards subterfuge upends an otherwise simple plan. Visser is the Coens’ first of many such characters, from Fargo’s Carl Showalter to Miller’s Crossing’s Bernie Bernbaum to Raising Arizona’s demonic biker Leonard Smalls. Each enters the picture as a minor character, but leaves it with a trail of (in one case, literal) flames in their wake.
But the Coens have never been huge on black-and-white villainy, nor on drawing a clear distinction between protagonist and antagonist. At Blood Simple’s outset, it’s easy to peg John Getz’s Ray as our ostensible hero, but it isn’t long before he’s relegated to a supporting role, a dope in a scheme that’s grown beyond him. The Coens pulled a similar trick with No Country for Old Man’s Llewelyn Moss, a salt-of-the-earth everyman whose adventures not only become futile by film’s end, but reveal him to be anything but the hero he seems to be in the early going.
On the surface, however, Blood Simple’s most obvious descendant is The Man Who Wasn’t There, a throwback noir the Coens made in 2001. Both combine infidelity, murder, and Frances McDormand, but distinguish themselves by exploring opposite sides of the marital divide. Blood Simple spent much of its time with the cheating couple, while The Man Who Wasn’t There lent its focus to the cuckold. The latter also serves as a showcase for how the Coens had grown in the two decades since Blood Simple, as The Man Who Wasn’t There fortifies its noir with a black-and-white palette, surrealistic flourishes, and a couple of UFOs for good measure.
You know what they say: You gotta learn the rules before you break ‘em. Blood Simple is the Coens acing that test.
Though Blood Simple definitely indulges in some of the popular forms of its era (the lustrous body hair in particular), returning to it is a fascinating study in how fully-formed the Coens were, as far as their understood sensibility is concerned. The film straddles that distinct Coens line between comedy and bracing violence throughout, and if it does ultimately tip toward the latter, particularly in its final third, it’s still wholly and definitively a Coens joint.
Here, they’re most interested in what silence can convey. Many of the film’s key moments (Ray’s realization of what’s happened to Marty and the ensuing scramble, the cat-and-mouse game between Abby and Visser at film’s end) unfold with minimal to no dialogue, and it’s up to Joel Coen to find the necessary notes of drama. And he does. Consider that climactic sequence for a moment. Ray’s dead, and it takes that for Abby to fully grasp the gravity of what’s happening, even as she still thinks it’s Marty who pulled the trigger. From there, the film follows every step, every precarious move and counter-move, until a gun is actually discharged. That’s to say nothing of the haunting shot in which Visser, with his hand impaled on a windowsill, starts shooting through the wall to reach Abby. Only the disco ball-like strands of light illuminate Abby’s terror at what’s happening. It’s an utterly perfect moment of unraveling.
And when the film gets wordy, it does so with the Coens’ signature dexterity. The scene in which Marty opens negotiations with Visser for his services is made all the more haunting by the stillness of it. The shots stay in or immediately around the car for so long that you start to wonder if something isn’t going to happen before the scene even ends. As Visser drops his yokel-esque act in favor of pragmatic evil, quickly, the temperature of the car seems to change. Marty’s already sweating bullets before he even shows up, but now he has a thorough reason.
That’s a good way to illustrate Blood Simple, actually: pragmatism. While the Coens would use a lot of these devices to better effect later (namely with No Country For Old Men), the use of a small cast, a plot full of circumstance, and a tightening claustrophobia in the photography make for a film that’s more exhilarating than most blockbusters at the time, even as it’s built from far less.
Two actresses who have played pivotal roles in the Coen films that followed first appeared for the brothers in Blood Simple. One of these appearances is nearly impossible to detect without the help of a credits listing. Keep an ear out for Holly Hunter, who starred as Ed in the brothers’ next film, Raising Arizona, and years later as Everett’s long-suffering wife Penny in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. She’s the voice on Meurice’s answering machine.
But Hunter’s role in the Coen brothers’ universe doesn’t end there. Her unavailability to read for the role of Abby led to her encouraging Frances McDormand to audition for the role. Smartest move in McDormand’s career, and maybe even the brothers Coen. Not only did McDormand go on to marry Joel Coen, but she’s since appeared in six Coen films with one coming soon (Hail, Caesar!). Her biggest achievement came in the role of Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo, for which she won her first and only Academy Award.
A few other people would go on to pop up in future Coen films. Notably, M. Emmet Walsh shows up in Raising Arizona. The voices of William Preston Robertson and Barry Sonnenfeld have made several appearances over the years for the brothers. Sonnenfeld, the director of The Addams Family and Men in Black franchises, is uncredited in Blood Simple, but does provide the sound of vomiting. How proud he must be!
The Coens aren’t credited enough for being such distinctly American filmmakers. Their stories span the West Coast (The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink) to the East Coast (The Hudsucker Proxy, Inside Llewyn Davis), the Southwest (Raising Arizona) to the Midwest (Fargo, A Serious Man) to the Deep South (O Brother, Where Art Thou). Blood Simple takes place in Texas, and does a fine job depicting the honky-tonk bars and sad suburbs of Dallas. This kind of local color has always been integral to the Coens’ work, but their best scenes often circle around common denominators: suburban lawns, forests, empty stretches of highway.
Oh, those desolate stretches. Has any other filmmaker depicted an empty road quite like the Coens? Fargo lives and dies on those moments, and not just when Gaear Grimsrud runs down that poor couple. Later, as Showalter buries the money in the snow, the distant horizons on either side serve as a soul-crushingly simple symbol of futility. Blood Simple also hinges on a highway scene, resulting in a sequence that’s as harrowing as it is visually striking.
After stumbling upon a dead body, Ray drives it to a local farm to bury. It’s some surprise then when the body slumps from the backseat, sadly clawing its way down the highway. Headlights illuminate the undead mess, and here, in the great wide open, Ray has to decide what kind of man he truly is. Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDunnough will do the same in Raising Arizona. The same goes for Grimsrud in Fargo. And even No Country’s Anton Chigurh, captive bolt pistol and all.
Blood Simple was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between composer Carter Burwell and the Coen Brothers. After this film, he would put together every Coens score from then on, aside from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where his contributions bolstered T-Bone Burnett’s work. And it starts minimally enough, with electronic flourishes punctuating a stark, single piano. Some of the film’s most protracted sequences are brought together by Burwell’s score; as Burwell describes himself, the piano is as raw and stripped as the Texan desert landscape against which the film’s circular tragedy takes place.
Just check out this title track if you’re unfamiliar. If you’ve seen the film, then yeah, a shiver ran down our spines as well.
There’s a weight to the score, beneath its apparent simplicity, that suits the film’s strange but effective mix of dark laughs and sadism. The melancholy tones perfectly suit a movie that in a lot of ways is just the tale of a bunch of people in a mess whose collective plans all happen to react horribly with one another’s. And like the best Coen movies, nobody learns much of anything from it all.