Released on January 18, 1985
Directed by Joel Coen
Produced by Ethan Coen
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld
(Caution: this may contain spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film.)
I remember seeing this, the Coen Brothers first full-length film, sometime in the early 90’s, probably on cable. It didn’t leave much of an impression at the time largely due to the fact that it moved too slowly for my 20-something mind. I picked it up on DVD a few years back, you know, when I was in the midst of a similar “Coens rule!” phase that I find myself in now. I think I’ve watched it twice since that purchase, up until last night when I revisited it yet again.
My initial reaction is that it is most definitely a first film, with all the good and bad that entails. The production values are solid, but skimpy, as they stuck with a simple story that required little in the name of sets, with a small cast and a minimal use of extras. You can easily see this being filmed somewhat on the fly on a shoestring budget. None of which is really meant as a criticism. If anything it shows they knew how to work within their limitations. There are plenty of soon-to-be-trademark elements in the film, particularly with the camerawork. The Coen’s have a very specific visual style that uses a lot of unique perspectives and slow pans and cuts. They never rush moments and will often hold longer than necessary on an image in order to really drive it home. That style is already present in their first film.
The Coen’s have also become known over the years for populating their films with off-the-wall and extremely eccentric characters, often times straining credibility when it comes to behavior. That element that’s missing here. The main cast is made up of five people and outside of M. Emmet Walsh’s twitchiness and odd laugh, none of them seem out of the ordinary. Sure, they make some odd choices at times, but they aren’t presented in typical Coen’s way. I think that helps this film immensely as the story is tight enough to not need that kind of added color the way something like The Big Lebowski does. I really liked Frances McDormand here in what was her film debut. She has a really youthful charm that is hard to ignore, which is good because she needs to have us on her side right from the beginning given that she opens things up by committing adultery.
Unfortunately, John Getz, who plays her lover Ray, is pretty awful in my estimation. Possibly the worst individual performance in any Coen’s film. He’s a big, handsome fella who *seems* to have enough intelligence to know what’s going on without acting like some naïve hayseed, yet the performance feels incomplete to me. His delivery is very measured and slow, but not in a way that indicates any mental shortcomings, but rather makes him come across as thoughtful. Yet he’s a guy who has no ambition to be anything other than a bartender from some dive bar in the middle-of-nowhere Texas? One who is dumb enough to sleep with his boss’ wife? I dunno, something about it feels off to me. I would expect that kind of behavior from a guy who’s more energetic and prone to action; some young stud that’s too dumb or too fired up to realize he’s fucked up. In his later scenes after he’s finished off Marty and is struggling with what he’s done, Getz again fails to give the character any energy. He plays the whole thing like he’s forever in shock, moments from settling into a catatonic state, whereas I was looking for/expecting more of a sense of adrenaline fueled panic. I just have a hard time buying a guy this restrained as somebody who works in a Texas roadhouse and likes to chase women. I wanted more personality from him.
M. Emmet Walsh as the private eye and Dan Hedaya as Marty, the husband, deliver excellent performances. Walsh treads the line of going over-the-top on a couple of occasions, but it gives the film needed life when he does, so I’m cool with it. Hedaya plays things very tight to the vest, but I like that. I feel like as the bar owner with the young trophy wife he’s the type of guy who knows how the game is played (the scene where he tries to pick up a girl at the bar even while he’s dealing with bad news is a great example) and as a result keeps his cool. I think that might be why I disliked Ray so much, because I wanted a contrast. Marty makes some poor decisions because he’s been betrayed, but he’s fairly careful about it. Ray makes some poor decisions because, well… I’m not sure why. He doesn’t *seem* dumb, but then again he lets Marty manipulate him pretty easily too.
As an overall film I like Blood Simple. The story is one of the Coen’s more concise tales and they generally stay on point. Their later films occasionally get cluttered down by trying to populate the picture with wacky characters, often just as an excuse to use one of their actors friends. Here we focus merely on the people who matter. The violence, while present, isn’t particularly bothersome to me, probably because we’ve seen such an escalation in the form in the years since Blood Simple was made. In their review of the movie (see below clip), Siskel & Ebert make a bigger deal of it than I would have, so my guess is it’s more of an era issue. Either way I found the use violence effective, because hey, it’s hard to tell a thriller about multiple murders without it. If everything had been done off-screen or just hinted at, I don’t think you’d get the tension the Coen’s achieve in the climactic scene. It’s almost like we need to know that the filmmakers are capable of shocking us to help raise the stakes, rather than being blindsided by an out-of-nowhere violent crescendo that would have cheapened it.
I originally had Blood Simple ranked 11th out of 17 Coen Brothers films and this recent viewing doesn’t look to change that. It’s raw and not as “fun” as their later work, which keeps it from being a top 10 for me, but it’s also more engaging and absorbing than some of their lesser comedies. It’s the one film of theirs that I’d actually like to see them take a second stab at though, just because I’m curious how it would look given an increased budget and more of their developed style. Not saying it would necessarily be better, but I think it would look much different.