MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Indie Neo-Noir Crime/ Stars: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams/Runtime: 99 minutes
I think it can be safely said that when it first made its way to theaters in the long-gone year of 1984, the debut film of iconic film helmers Joel and Ethan Coen that is Blood Simple made for a slice of cinema that, more than just proving to be an engaging throwback to film noirs of the 1950s, also proved to be a loud proclamation to Hollywood that a pair of legends had just arrived on the scene. Indeed I can safely say that the vast majority of film helmers will never be able to mold and sculpt a slice of cinema as sly, as intense, and as thrilling as this slice of cinema to say nothing of not scoring a straight-up home run like this their first time up at bat. Yet even though this dynamic duo has consistently shown through numerous just as iconic movies that the skill they showcased for us in this was by no means an outlier, I still feel that there is no denying that there is just something about this slice of cinema that helps distinguish it from the rest of the Coens’ and their filmography. I mean yes it may be because they didn’t have the experience that they did when they made something like No Country for Old Men or even Fargo, but thanks to taut helmsmanship, a wonderfully penned script, and a terrific cast, Blood Simple is a stylish and engaging slice of cinema that proves to be just as phenomenal as the majority of movies that this truly iconic directing duo have made throughout the course of their careers.
The plot is as follows: Blood Simple regales us with the riveting story of an owner/operator of a small Texas town country western bar by the name of Julian Marty. A man who, among other noteworthy attributes, is the man whose face you would see in the dictionary under the word “scum bag”. He also is a man who has a lovely young wife by the name of Abby who is he “happily” married to. I put happily in quotes because maybe the marriage would be going a lot better if Julian wasn’t such a scumbag….and if Abby hadn’t recently started playing house with one of the bar’s bartenders, a seemingly decent guy by the name of Ray. Of course Ray and Abby may think that their affair is quite discreet and that Marty is not aware in the slightest, but that is where they would be wrong. This is because we quickly see that Marty has retained the services of a p.i who might just be even more of a slime ball than he is by the name of Loren Visser to both follow our young couple and bring Marty back evidence that this duo is in point of fact playing the hanky panky. Yet even when the skilled p.i. brings him back proof of exactly what he asked for, we see that Marty not only doesn’t take it well, but he also decides to take it a step further. Indeed he is so envious and so scorned by the fact that his wife would stab him in the back like this (even if he hasn’t exactly made it a secret that there is no love between him and her) that, following an altercation between him and the two, he reapproaches Visser with a new offer. Namely that this time he doesn’t want them followed; rather he plain and simply wants Visser to eliminate Abby and Ray and leave no trace. Of course with the promise of a 10,000 dollar payday, it doesn’t take much to convince the slimy p.i. to not only take the job, but to give Marty an alibi out of town courtesy of going on a fishing trip so no suspicion can be placed on him. Of course, as we all know from Film 101 it’s one thing to plan murder, but when it comes to the actual execution of it don’t be surprised if all of your best laid plans suddenly start to go horribly and terribly awry. Suffice it to say that by the end of this slice of cinema you will see this rule be taken to the fullest extent possible for our characters. As for how that is something I will leave you to discover for yourself….
Now for their first slice of cinema, we can see that the Coens decided to take on a film that is a combo of both a crime drama and film noir; a combo incidentally that they are able to make work phenomenally well. Yes I won’t lie to you there are moments sprinkled throughout where the film is a tad bit sulking. At the same time though, the film does operate at a fairly decent clip and it also puts on full display a lot of the now-iconic trademarks of one of this dynamic directing duo’s films thus showcasing for us a beginning that is already full to the brim when it comes to both potential and imagination. Sure it’s no polished gem (especially as we see the work from the editing department leaves a bit to be desired), but at the same time their skill at regaling us with a narrative (especially when it comes to ones full of twists and turns a’plenty) is very much evident and then some. There’s also a wonderful utilization of music with particular regard to the ominous yet beautiful theme from Carter Burwell not only in our introductions to our main cast of characters, but also in transitioning between scenes and the various tones the film operates with. That and even the work done with the camera is particularly well done as not only does it give a sense of a specific mood to specific events in the film, but it also permits the atmosphere and locations in the film to sort of become additional members of the cast of characters. Along with that it should also be readily obvious that this dynamic duo is highly skilled with writing movies as well; a fact that is most certainly the case with this film. Indeed not only is the dialogue a mix of brilliant and yet also snarky, but the narrative is wonderfully unpredictable as well. Indeed if there is even one component in this film that one could consider to be lacking in any way, it would have to be in regards to morals since by and large the quartet of main characters really do seem like the kind of people who slept through ethics class. Perhaps the most intriguing element however from the creative team behind the camera however is how they choose to let the audience in on what’s going down in this complex scheme even though the characters have absolutely no idea what is going on (though the fact that they all suspect one another for a variety of offenses also might play a part in that as well). Indeed if anything, the Coens really do seem to be trying to say with this that although the art of murder sounds simple, it most certainly is not especially in regards to its actual execution. This is especially the case in this film as we see that the simple request to murder two people actually snowballs into an avalanche of distrust and deviant behavior that eventually leads to a resolution that is equal parts unpredictable and taut in equal measure.
Now even though the cast in this slice of cinema is fairly small, there is still no denying that they all manage to deliver quite riveting performances in this. Indeed this was Frances McDormand’s debut role and honestly she knocks this completely out of the park. Sure the character of Abby does seem like the stereotypical woman caught between two men in this kind of narrative and in many respects that’s not entirely inaccurate. Yet there is also no denying that McDormand brings a sincerity and genuineness to the part that it’s no wonder that she has since gone on to become one of the most iconic actresses of the past three decades. Now I do like the work done by John Getz in this (particularly because I happen to enjoy whenever he pops up in something be it this or the 1986 remake of The Fly), but at the same time I do feel that his role could have been played by someone like Tom Berenger and it would have been just as effective a performance. As for the work done in this by Dan Hedaya as Marty, I do enjoy Dan Hedaya’s work as an actor, but I felt like the movie doesn’t really make him as slimy and sleazy as it could’ve and honestly should’ve. Like I said about the work done by Getz it’s not a bad performance by any means, but at the same time it also could have been a lot better. Yet out of everyone in the fairly small yet highly talented cast, I feel that the true standout undoubtedly has to be iconic character actor M. Emmet Walsh as the sleazy private eye since for all intents and purposes I feel like he is the only cast member who is completely and utterly aware of what kind of film is being made. As a result, Walsh does a great job of immersing himself in the smarmy and despicableness of his part with a lecherous bemusement and is completely onboard with going as slimy as he possibly can. Indeed not only does he get to deliver the beginning monologue which sets the stage and mood for the rest of the film, but without going into spoilers he is also the last person the viewer will see in the movie and it is his stare in the final shot that really shows a brilliant mix of cartoonish yet also legitimately menacing that results in Walsh presenting us with a character who is colorful and seemingly affable and laidback, but is also undoubtedly a psychopath as well. Indeed Walsh may be way more terrifying than funny, but at the same time there is no denying that he is fairly comedic if not the kind of wonderfully sleazy that a slice of cinema in this vein so desperately needed in order to ultimately work as well as it does.
All in all and at the end of the day, there can be no denying that the 1984 slice of cinema that is Blood Simple is a taut and truly riveting entry in the thriller genre of movie magic to say nothing of one whose nihilist roots never do feel like they will ever overwhelm the rest of the film at any time due in large part to how wonderfully nihilism never seems like too much thanks to how terrific the work done behind the camera is, how three-dimensional this slice of cinema’s cast of characters all turn out to be, and also how to a pretty decent degree the film makes us feel like we are going on this journey of misadventure and crime and punishment with each and every one of them. Indeed there is only a single way that I can think of in which this slice of cinema might even be remotely viewed as something resembling a “disappointment” and that would be if one such as yourself made the unfair choice to compare this to a lot of the other movies that the Coens have made in the time since including No Country for Old Men, Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski, and of course Fargo. When viewing this slice of cinema on its own distinct merits however and not as the beginning entry in a truly masterclass directing career, Blood Simple is not only of the most top-flight debuts this side of Reservoir Dogs, but it also is one of the most rewatchable indie films that the 1980s ever sought fit to give audiences. Indeed the fact that the dynamic directing duo behind this slice of cinema would actually make movies that were just as great if not better than this and as soon as the next film that they made is a testament that Blood Simple didn’t do anything wrong. Rather, it introduced the world to a pair of filmmakers that were, even from the very beginning of their careers, more than prepared to show everyone else how to do it right. On a scale of 1-5 I give Blood Simple a solid 4 out of 5.