“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.”
Not surprising for a pair of Jewish filmmakers, but Joel and Ethan Coen’s best movies have always contained some Old Testament-style judgment of their characters. Their best work is rife with crime, immoral behavior, adultery and ignoring or betraying your fellow man. If you go after some illicit money in one of their movies, chances are you’ll only be alive for another 100 minutes or so.
There is a certain kind of crime story that the Coens have been tinkering with for over 30 years: it usually involves people on the low end of the intelligence totem pole trying to procure some money for their own needs or to punish someone else, a plan which then goes disastrously wrong and the murderers, thieves and cheating hearts usually face outlandish forms of divine retribution. They perfected several distinct versions of this story with “Fargo,” the Cormac McCarthy adaptation “No Country for Old Men,” “The Big Lebowski” and the criminally underseen “The Man Who Wasn’t There” all come to mind, but everything these gleefully perverse siblings have done to secure their place in the Pantheon of modern American directors can be traced back to the Texas-scuzz noir of “Blood Simple,” their 1985 debut that stands as a launching pad for their singular brand of damnation.
Set in a non-descript, sweltering town somewhere in Texas, “Blood Simple” is about Marty (Dan Hedaya, a master of glowering sleaze) a local bartender who suspects his young wife Abby (Frances McDormand, still in ingenue mode, making her film debut), may be cheating on him with Ray (John Getz, playing a classic B-movie lunkhead) one of his dim-witted bartenders. He then does what all loving husbands concerned about their spouses do; hire Visser (a terrifying M. Emmett Walsh) the seediest private detective in history, to follow Ray and Abby and then kill them both. There’s a $10,000 price for ending this unholy matrimony, and Visser has a plan that really comes down to common sense; why do you need to keep someone alive after they pay you, especially if they’ll go to jail along with you if you get caught? It’s at this point when the Coens love of Murphy’s Law (everything that can go wrong, probably will) goes into overdrive and the lives of all these people are destroyed with reckless abandon, with allusions to Wilder, Kubrick and even Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” (which the Coens worked on).
“Blood Simple” is a great showcase of the time before the Coens became elder statesmen; this is there “Mean Streets,” their “Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” They’re not afraid to swing the camera every which way knowing that they have the storytelling mastery to justify every stylistic flourish. This material is the pulpiest of pulp, and you can see its influence in films like “Pulp Fiction” and other works from the American indie resurgence of the late 80’s/early 90’s.
What I love about the Coens work, especially in “Blood Simple” is how merciless they are in showing how easily crime can turn to disaster; they’ve figured out how to make idiocy visceral. Ray, who’s not exactly on MENSA’s short list (Getz is a bit wooden, but it’s perfect for the character), must dispose of a body in a public place, while the blood pools all around him. The blood in this film doesn’t quite look like real blood. It’s darker, more viscous, impossible to completely wash away (Barry Sonnenfeld, back before he was a director, was one hell of a cinematographer and this is a gorgeously shot movie, despite the shoestring budget). Ray tries to clean up the blood with his windbreaker, but it just smears it around. As he moves the body, blood drips on the floor. He hides the body in his car, and it seeps through the blankets he laid over the seats. Even bigger problem; what if the corpse is still living? The Coens’ perspective on crime is summed up perfectly in this sequence: crime is bad, but more importantly, it’s a hell of a lot of work, that will probably turn you into a paranoid, sweaty mess.
This movie is plenty sweaty, but it’s the farthest thing from a mess. “Blood Simple” is so tightly constructed you can see every vein and tendon of its structure. The camerawork is impeccable, even when it indulges in the swooping tracking shots that their friend Sam Raimi used liberally in “The Evil Dead.” Their penchant for locational beauty is also fully-formed, using the hazy Texas landscape to great effect, and creating indelible images as simple as light and smoke pouring through bullet holes in the Hitchcock-aping finale. Nobody writes dialogue like these two, and this is some of their leanest, most naturalistic writing, not leaning too heavily on philosophical allegory like some of their later films have. They also get great performances. Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife and on-screen muse, had not yet become the steely, confident actress who was able to bring characters like Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” to life, but she acquits herself admirably for a first-time leading lady, bringing just the right amount of terror and sexuality to this lustful housewife. You can’t really blame her for cheating on Marty, especially since Hedaya makes him such a desperate, angry and pathetic louse, with his glower and short temper likely over-compensating for his impotency.
Looming over all of them? M. Emmett Walsh, a disgusting yet affable monster as Visser. Flies buzz around his sweat-stained suit and hat; in fact he sweats so copiously it feels like you can smell him through the screen. Visser is like the crazy redneck uncle of “No Country for Old Men’s” Anton Chigurh, but no less homicidal, endlessly pursuing anyone who inconveniences him or threatens his financial opportunities, while taking time to tell anecdotes about the meaning of true love or the socioeconomic structure of Soviet Russia.
Visser isn’t the only thing that bears hallmarks of what the Coens would hone to diamond-like perfection as their careers went on. The scene with Ray moving the body is done again in Fargo. The shot of somebody’s feet blocking out the light coming through the bottom of the door is also re-used in “No Country.” “Blood Simple” remains an immense pleasure because we are seeing the blueprint of a filmmaking oeuvre that 28 years later has let to be duplicated. This opening shot is a masterpiece because of the beautiful filmmaking, the amazing dialogue, the archetype-destroying characters. But it’s the first chapter of the story these two sons of Minnesota haven’t stopped telling. Crime will not only destroy you, but these insane siblings, like Visser in that great final shot, will be laughing at all the madness.