BLOOD SIMPLE A
USA (99 mi) 1984 d: Joel and Ethan Coen
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.
—Private Detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), Blood Simple (1/11) Movie CLIP - Down Here, You're on Your Own (1984) HD YouTube (1:17)
A film that suggests how our own view of the world ultimately affects the outcome of our lives, where it’s not fate but our own personal blinders that prevent us from seeing the bigger picture, often ending up wallowing in self-pity as a result. Falling somewhere between an absurd comic thriller and a modernistic neo-noir, the film provides the signature Coen brothers trademark, displaying their lacerating wit in subversively blending dark and light tones. Drawing from a phrase out of Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest, “blood simple” describes the mind-numbing panic and confusion engulfing a killer at the moment he realizes he’s actually killed someone. Two male characters go “blood-simple” over the duration of the film, causing extreme internal alarm when they lose their composure, yet the mindset exists throughout the picture, exhibiting disastrous consequences. This intense personal anxiety and sense of dread pervades nearly every frame of this film, where a deep sense of foreboding accompanies every shot, like John Carpenter movies ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) or HALLOWEEN (1978), where the atmospheric techniques to provide tension and suspense make the film resemble a slasher movie. The thrill of writing a movie like this is creating a labyrinth for which there is no escape, where the audience has access to clues that the characters in the film do not, snaring them in a web of their own delusions and deceit. As the first Coen brothers movie written, directed, co-produced and co-edited by the two brothers Joel and Ethan, none of the major Hollywood studios were willing to release the film, calling it “too gory to be an art film, too arty to be an exploitation film, funny but not quite a comedy,” premiering instead at Sundance in 1985 where it won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize before touring at Cannes, New York, and the Toronto Film Festivals to great acclaim, easily recouping their original investments, although the original VHS release didn’t obtain the rights to one of the featured musical tracks, playing Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” instead of what turns out to be a brilliant theme song in Four Tops - It's The Same Old Song (1966) HQ 0815007 - YouTube (2:41), which was corrected by the time it came out on DVD. Essentially a story of broken hearts, a lover’s separation stems from a lack of trust, where the guy’s too big of a jerk to express his love for his wife, so an age-old dilemma of forbidden sexual encounters results in her sleeping with another man. The husband would rather kill them both than see her with another man. Meanwhile, the man she’s run off with kills her husband supposedly to protect her, believing she tried to kill him, where he simply finishes off the job someone else started. The wife thought she loved this new guy, but has second thoughts when she realizes he’s actually killed someone. The new guy thought he loved the other guy’s wife until he suspects she’s framing him for the murder. Happiness turns into betrayal and a series of misplaced assumptions that are never actually discussed, both becoming haunted by a painful memory that stands between them, where the song lyrics ironically reveal, “It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you’ve been gone.” Creating a tightly-plotted, low-budget indie film, the same can be said for the Coen’s stylistic revival of a familiar film noir murder genre, much like CHINATOWN (1974), BODY HEAT (1981), or even Pulp Fiction (1994) — same song, different meaning.
Using an intriguing method to raise money for the film, the Coen’s made a fake trailer featuring the two brothers themselves. With only enough money to rent camera equipment for one day, they chose a Thursday ahead of a President’s Day Friday and Monday holiday, allowing them to shoot for 5 consecutive days. With trailer in hand, they shopped the film around for more than a year asking potential investors, accumulating half of the $1.5 million dollars needed from 168 private investors, which was enough to start production. A bleak melodrama of adultery, double-crosses, and murder, not to mention a continuing series of blunders and major misunderstandings, the Coen’s use a dazzling film technique that only heightens the interest, using virtuoso camera movements, high and low-angle shots, and vividly expressive lighting effects in a throwback to a James M. Cain style film noir to tell a dark and violent story with devastating turns and plot twists. Similar to Cain’s characters, illicit desires lead them into a shadowy spiral of ill-fated destruction, where the ominous opening voice-over monologue, presented as a prologue, may more appropriately be viewed as the epilogue, becoming one of the film’s unanswered mysteries, but it certainly sets a tone of inevitable doom, accentuated by headlights shining on a dark highway with an effective montage of a barren west Texas landscape, including isolated oil pumps and refineries silhouetted against a mammoth sky, including an abandoned outdoor drive-in theater, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, serving as a viewer introduction to the Reagan years, an America lost in a wasteland. It’s a very clever way for the Coen’s to introduce themselves in their first film. Not only the camerawork from fellow director Barry Sonnenfeld, who supposedly watched The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970) and THE THIRD MAN (1949) in preparation for making the film, but also the hypnotic, Carpenteresque music from Carter Burwell and a superb sound design add unique stylish touches to this film, with clear connections to the horror genre. Following the gloom and doom of the opening narration, the screen turns dark, with a lone car headlight slowly approaching the center of the screen from a distance, leading to the title sequence, where the monotonous sound of windshield wipers takes over as the camera then places us inside that car, where Abby (a very young Frances McDormand, marrying Joel Coen later that year) is leaving her husband Marty (Dan Hedaya), the picture of a man in deep shit and the owner of a bar named the Neon Boot in rural Texas, driven by one of his bartenders, Ray (John Getz), in a driving rain. The mood is tense, few words are spoken as they decide what to do. Abby tells Ray that her first anniversary gift from Marty was a small, pearl-handled .38 revolver, thinking she better leave before using it on him, where neither one is much interested in revisiting her marital troubles, instead taking refuge from the storm in a motel where they end up having sex. The next morning the phone rings in the motel room, where the caller is an openly suspicious jealous husband who wants them to know they’re not fooling anybody. We learn afterwards that Marty had them followed by a private investigator, a particularly disreputable lowlife named Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh, never better, as he is the epitome of sleaze) a large, sweaty man in an oversized cowboy hat who seems to exist on the same moral plane as a sewer rat, going above and beyond what he was hired to do, providing photographs of the couple in the motel, then taking apparent glee by telling him they went at it like rabbits, only stopping occasionally before starting over again. Disgusted, Ray dismisses him angrily as the investigator scoops up his specially engraved Elks Man of the Year lighter off the counter, an image the camera lingers on, before telling him, “Don’t come by here any more. If I need you again, I’ll know which rock to turn over.”
Shots from inside the bar convey a darkness illuminated by neon signs, where the bar is actually part strip club, as male patrons are used to ogling the women for pleasure, while Marty has a two-way mirror installed in his office allowing him to watch his customers and the girls without ever being detected. This is emblematic of the voyeurism associated with the film, not only in the expressive look, but also the disturbing way Visser secretly observes others behind the scenes, with the two-sided mirror standing for the owner’s double cross, while also expressing how he blatantly hides his real intentions. When Ray returns back to the bar to request his final paycheck, Marty refuses to give it to him, calling his wife “an expensive piece of ass” before threatening to shoot him if he ever sets foot on his property again. This sequence is preceded by a slow-moving camera shot that moves along the length of the bar, elevating itself to climb over a drunk passed out on the counter, before settling back to the counter position. The discussion, however, takes place outside the back door, with a view of an incinerator burning not far away, where the crackle of the fire mixes with the sharp snaps associated with an electrical bug zapper, Marty’s face lit by the neon blue light, while the sounds are exaggerated to account for Marty’s internalized hatred turning into hysteria. What follows afterwards is a kind of dance of emotional disconnection, where this three-way ménage a trois only grows more distrustful. Abby removes some of her stuff from Marty’s home and moves in with Ray, not the brightest guy on the block, but seemingly dependable, yet ends up sleeping on the couch, as both are unsure of the other’s real intentions, where each is quick to think the other may already have another sexual partner, where this arrangement could be interrupting something, while Marty spends all night sitting on a chair in his office wondering what to do next. Neither Abby or Marty can sleep, where the camera cross-cuts between them, with an outside light shining on Abby’s face as she lies in a restless state on the sofa, yet there are shadows from foliage or tree branches marking her face, eventually getting up in her nightgown like a sleepwalker and moving into the room with Ray, yet the camera holds the outside light from the window which eventually turns into the next morning. Quite unexpectedly, a slow tracking shot reveals the presence of Marty’s dog in the living room, where his hand is on her throat with dishonorable intentions before she has a chance to figure anything out. With the camera focused upon a gun falling out of her purse, Marty pulls her in the opposite direction, crudely taunting her, eventually dragging her out the door, but before he has a chance to act on his perverted impulses, she kicks him hard in the groin, breaking one of his fingers in the process. The quick cuts and hand-held close-ups only accentuate the confusion of the moment, but Marty is left totally out of sorts afterwards, running to his car, squealing his tires as he makes a quick getaway, only to have to turn around at the dead end and zoom by once again. This dead end motif is hilariously used several times for humor, cutting the edge off scenes that may otherwise display inordinate violence. What’s perhaps most surprising about the film is the extraordinary amount of pitch black humor, perfectly balancing the darkness of the otherwise bleak subject matter.
A short time later, Marty is seen meeting Visser on a bluff overlooking the river, a kind of lover’s lane outside town where Visser is seen trying to pick up a teenage girl before they sit down for business in the front seat of his undersized Volkswagen Beetle.
Marty: I got a job for you.
Private Detective Visser: Uh, well, if the pay’s right, and it’s legal, I’ll do it.
Marty: It’s not strictly legal.
Private Detective Visser: [Thinks for a second] Well, if the pay’s right, I’ll do it.
While not exactly “the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” where Marty’s forced to listen to Visser’s commentary on the test of true love, Blood Simple - Test of True Love - YouTube (48 seconds), it’s hard to tell which of these two vile characters is actually more contemptible, but Marty offers him $10,000 dollars for the murder of them both, no questions asked, as Visser suggests Marty leave town for a few days on a fishing trip to Corpus Christi while he attends to the matter, giving him a call when the deed is done. Marty reminds him of the incinerator behind the bar, urging him to make sure the bodies are never discovered. This only disgusts Visser, whose growing contempt for the man is never more evident. That night Abby wakes up terrified, thinking Marty is somewhere inside Ray’s house, but he calmly reassures her the house is locked. The camera holds its position while the two talk momentarily, as the neurotically chatty Abby discusses her husband’s psychiatric peculiarities, claiming he took her to see a psychiatrist to help calm her down, but the psychiatrist revealed she was the healthiest person he’d ever spoken to, before summing up her views on the reticence of either one of them to communicate much, “He’s like you, he doesn’t say much. When he doesn’t say things, they’re usually nasty. When you don’t, they’re usually nice.” When she rolls over, the audience can see her body was blocking a view out the window of Visser’s Volkswagen parked outside, using the camera once again to amp up the tension in an otherwise tender moment, much like Hitchcock in REAR WINDOW (1954). Visser quietly fumbles with the front door lock before entering the house, removing Abby’s gun from her purse, noticing there are three bullets in the chamber, while creeping throughout the house, moving in and out of the shadows to the bedroom, but then exits unexpectedly. Instead he walks to the outdoor bedroom window and peers in, taking a photograph of the sleeping couple. Visser calls Marty from a pay phone, meeting him again in his office at the bar, slapping his monogrammed lighter on the counter while Marty dumps four dead fish on the desk, temporarily obscuring the lighter, before showing him a doctored photograph of the couple that resembles our last look in the bedroom, though blood has been edited into the photograph so it appears they have been shot by multiple bullet wounds. As Marty moves to the safe to get the money, with a brilliant shade of blazing red as the hellish backdrop behind a close-up of his head, sliding in one of the incriminating photos for protection while at the same time telling Visser they have to learn to trust each other, he hands him a bundle of cash, telling him to count it. Visser accordingly responds with “Nah, I trust you” before shooting him in the chest with Abby’s gun, throwing it on the floor afterwards while Marty’s body, still sitting in his chair, turns stiff immediately, registering no expression on his face as blood can be seen trickling down his hands hanging at his side, yet Visser can’t help but remind him afterwards, “Who looks stupid now?” Blood Simple (5/11) Movie CLIP - Who Looks Stupid Now? (1984) HD YouTube (4:05). While the camera reveals the lighter left on Marty’s desk, time seems to stop momentarily as Visser exists, where the audience is left with the whoosh of an overhead shot of a revolving ceiling fan heard spinning endlessly.
Later that night long after closing, Ray returns to the bar seeking his unpaid money from Marty, but finds the cash register empty. His eyes move to the light coming out of the closed door frame of the office, moving slowly and carefully inside where he finds Marty sitting at his desk, his back to the door. As he cautiously investigates, with no answer coming from Marty, he accidentally steps on Abby’s gun which fires off a shot, a startling reflex moment that is sure to make nearly everyone in the theater jump out of their seats, yet it’s the kind of accomplished filmmaking that endears audiences to the Coen brothers, as clearly they know what they’re doing. With Abby’s gun and a dead husband, Ray assumes she murdered him and instinctively tries to protect her by wiping up the blood with his own jacket and disposing of the body, placing him in the back seat of his car with the gun in his jacket, throwing accumulated clean-up materials into the incinerator while driving him out into the empty Texas countryside in the dead of night. But he’s startled to hear sounds coming from the back seat, momentarily scaring him half to death, stopping the car and running out into an open dirt field. In a brilliant “body disposal” scene that lasts just over 13 minutes, no words are spoken, only the lonely sounds of Spanish music coming from the car radio, which includes “Anahi” by Argentinian singer Maria Luisa Buchino and her Llameros, Anahi - YouTube (2:08). By the time he returns to the car, the body is gone, seen slowly crawling up the highway at a snail’s pace. Pulling a shovel out of the trunk, with the sound of the shovel eerily heard as he drags it along the highway, he’s unable to use it, instead spotting approaching headlights from an oncoming truck off in the distance, where he has to pull Marty back inside the car just seconds before the truck races by. Next we hear the sound of the shovel, as Ray is digging a shallow grave by the light of his car, pushing Marty in the hole and throwing dirt on him while deafening moaning is coming from Marty, who pulls the gun out of the pocket and points it at Ray with his broken finger, firing two shots, but both are empty chambers. Ray grabs the gun out of his hand and finishes the job of burying him alive, a moment of terror and sheer horror, pounding the soil with the shovel afterwards, as if that should finish him off. By the light of day, Ray is leaning next to his car smoking a cigarette, while an aerial shot shows the car tire tracks leaving a perfect trail through a newly ploughed dirt field. Once he attempts to start his car, it fails to ignite, forced to try again, where only the Coen brothers can find dark humor in bringing the audience directly into the absurdity of this panicked situation, mirrored by a repeating piano theme that eloquently dominates the film, providing grace and tenderness in agonizing moments of accumulated dread and fear. Thankfully, he is able to escape, calling Abby to remind her that he loves her, thinking he’s saved her from some horrible fate, while she accordingly expresses her thanks, as if they are both on the same page. Returning later to Abby’s new apartment, Ray assures her that everything’s been taken care of, if they can just keep their heads, but Abby has no idea what he’s talking about, as she has no knowledge of Marty’s death.
Meanwhile, Visser burns the photographs, but discovers one is missing, assuming Marty must have locked it in the bar’s safe, while at the same time realizing he left his lighter in Marty’s office, so he returns to the bar as well, breaking into the back door and realizing the body is missing, retrieving anything that could be associated with him while taking a hammer to break open the safe, but hides when he is interrupted by a visit from Abby, hoping to explain Ray’s strange behavior, finding the bar ransacked and bloodstained, thinking Ray and Marty must have gotten into a fight, which would explain the mess. Particularly effective are the dual visits to the bar by Ray and Abby on subsequent nights, where he discovers an attempted murder and assumes she did it, while she finds an attempted burglary and assumes he did it. Equally jaw-dropping is a transitional shot expressing that confusion in a single shot that compresses time and space, as from the bar, Abby falls backwards but lands into her bed at home, only to find herself obsessed by a dream sequence that resurrects the spirit of Marty warning her about Ray, suggesting he is somehow involved in her husband’s disappearance, where for the audience anyway, it’s conceivable Marty might have risen from the grave, but then she wakes up in a fright. Confronting Ray at his home, he is no longer trusting anyone, as he’s busy packing his belongings, where she admits there must have been trouble between him and Marty. Ray explains he found her gun at the bar and even confesses he buried Marty alive, something she finds incomprehensible, having received assurances from another bartender that he’s still alive, while Ray’s heart skipped a beat of disbelief when she mentioned receiving a call from Marty, where Ray starts believing she may be setting him up for the murder. Returning back to the bar, Ray finds in the safe the fake photo of the couple lying in bed, returning to Abby’s apartment, sensing she may be in danger. Instead, he realizes he’s being tailed by a Volkswagen, but thinks he successfully loses it yet waits in the dark at Abby’s apartment staring out the window. When she arrives, she flips on the lights, failing to comprehend his instructions to keep the lights off as somebody may be watching them. Consequences ensue. With an extraordinary build-up, Abby believes it is Marty, or an avenging ghost of Marty, stalking her in the film’s final sequence, like the advancing steps of the merciless killer Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), establishing a curious contrast between Visser’s vulnerability in the lit bathroom and Abby’s safety in the darkness next door, with Abby remaining in the dark throughout, completely unaware of the truth, where the devil himself may as well have the last laugh, a voice of the damned, doomed to suffer into perpetuity. Taking its laceratingly dark tone from Detour (1945), the film is an operatic ballet of miscommunication, with the audience clearly knowing what is explicitly missing to the characters onscreen, just ordinary people who are inevitably making the wrong choices or assumptions, leading to a mind-bending communications breakdown with dire consequences, like something out of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), Klute (1971), or one of the legendary 70’s paranoia thrillers. Staking their claim on sustaining a palpable fear throughout, Carter Burwell’s eerily repetitious and hauntingly simple piano score aptly conveys the insidious tension that builds throughout, Blood Simple - Blood Simple YouTube (3:35), as the Coen’s remind viewers at every turn that a sinister presence lurks just under the surface, ready to leap out at any given moment, while windows, suggestive of the openness of innocence, are always exposed, never covered with curtains, allowing depraved unseen eyes entrance into the most private personal space, where the audience is invested in these hapless characters, riveted by the off-beat humor that infects this strange new world. A decade later in Fargo (1996), the Coen’s would add a more humane and caring figure in McDormand as a kindly police detective, finally placing this Macbethian rampage in context, but at the outset of their careers, the Brothers were much more ruthless.