Blood Simple. (1984) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, sexuality, and language
Running time: 99 min.

Cast: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams, Holly Hunter (cameo - voice)
Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Review published June 9, 2007

Blood Simple is most notable for being the first film by the Coen Brothers (Barton Fink, Fargo), and also an example of the noir revival in the 1980s (though Chinatown still reigns for all-time best), culminating in the term, "neo-noir" for its class of thriller. Evidence of its noir homage comes from the title itself, taken from a phrase used by Dashiell Hammett in his Continental Op novel, "Red Harvest". Unfortunately, it's a film overlooked by many circles, including those who claim to be Coen Brothers fans. It's a shame because, from my point of view, this first work remains their very best.

Four main characters take center stage in a small Texas community. There's Marty (Hedaya, Wise Guys), the bar owner constantly suspicious that his wife, Abby (McDormand, Darkman), is sleeping around on him any chance she gets. Abby does end up sleeping with one of Marty's bartenders, Ray (Getz, Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead), while he offers her a lift one evening. The tryst ends up being fodder for a hawk private investigator, Loren (Walsh, Blade Runner), who immediately brings the evidence to Marty. Marty is incensed, and doesn't know how to channel his anger, ultimately hiring Loren to kill the disrespectful lovebirds and leave no trace of what happened.

Though Blood Simple might seem to be a fairly "simple" premise of a husband exacting cruelty on the perpetrators of an adulterous affair, diligent attention must be paid to the actions and conversations between the characters in the film in order to truly appreciate it. There are many misunderstandings that take place among all of the characters, and though it seems like they are all operating out of their own best interests, they end up doing each others dirty work unwittingly. Crosses and double crosses abound, but not always when they should, and suspicions arise between the two lovers that have no basis in fact.

Symbolism also abounds. The dead end on Ray's street is a bad omen for those that fall for it. The four rioting fish on the table are a harbinger of things to come for the four main characters. The Antony and Cleopatra cigar box recalls the ancient historical figures whose love affair would result in ruin. The ever spinning ceiling fans above the heads of all of the characters give the notion of wheels turning in the mind, and of the circular patterns that has these characters doing dances of death (also alluded to by the Mariachi music) as they try to outsmart each other.

In addition to Blood Simple being the springboard to the careers of Joel and Ethan Coen, it would also mark the first big screen efforts of Frances McDormand (who would marry Joel shortly after working on this film), cinematographer (and future big time director himself) Barry Sonnenfeld (Big, Raising Arizona), and the highly effective, hypnotic first score by Carter Burwell (The Chamber, Conspiracy Theory) -- he would go on to score every Coen Brothers film. Although it is the first effort for many, they all deliver enormously, and rarely have topped their contributions to this film.

Although decades old, there is a timeless quality to Blood Simple that keeps it just as fresh and vibrant as the time of its release, partially due to the old-fashioned nature of the noirish story and characters. It also happens to have some cutting edge cinematic techniques, including the arresting headlight view of the open road, and the roving camerawork of Sonnenfeld. It is also quite violent, sometimes flinchingly so, with copious amounts of blood soaking through clothing, towels and upholstered seating -- damning evidence of a crime not easily rid of.

As alluded to earlier, Blood Simple remains my favorite Coen Brothers work. It's stylish, funny, creepy, and intense, and though many have imitated its style, few, if any, have been able to come close to matching its delicate balance of black comedy and macabre suspense. It's arguably a masterpiece of its kind.

-- A director's cut was issued in theaters in 1998 which added stereo sound, remixed the sound effects, and restored the fading print.  The Coen Brothers added a mock introduction and a few additional editing decisions were made, trimming out what they called, "the boring parts".  Both versions are available on DVD.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo