Personal Pantheon: Blood Simple – 1985

“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.

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Catching Up With: Badlands – 1973

“I can’t say that Im sorry for the things that we done,
At least for a little while sir me and her we had us some fun.”

Those words are not from “Badlands,” the film that announced filmmaker/nature enthusiast/recluse on steroids Terence Malick to the world. They are from “Nebraska” the Bruce Springsteen song that, like the film, was inspired by Charlie Starkweather, the Nebraska teenager who killed nearly a dozen people along  with his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, in 1957, before he was captured and executed.

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is a few years older than Starkweather, but his story is essentially the same. Slumming it as a garbage man in South Dakota, he meets Holly (Sissy Spacek) a bored, 15-year-old baton enthusiast who is immediately attracted to Kit’s James Dean fixation. It doesn’t take long for them to dispose of Holly’s disapproving father, burn down her house and hit the road, leaving a wake of bodies behind them.

The quieter, more contemplative cousin of Arthur Penn’s explosive 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Badlands” is one of film’s most confident and striking debuts, with Malick’s fixations on nature, sin and the smallness of human fate opposed to the cosmos firmly in place, despite the pulpy nature of this crime story. Malick has broken away from narrative structure in the years since, but he still leaves plenty of room for the story to play out through his philosophical, lyrical lens.

The casting of Kit and Holly is the first unusual thing about “Badlands.” Sheen and Spacek were both much older than the characters they played. But I think Malick realized that and it adds to their performances. Kit, who spends his days in this dead South Dakota town pick up garbage, likens himself as a rebel, with his ever-present comb, cold, gravelly voice and the calculated swagger he puts into every step he takes. He’s a rebel desperately searching for a cause. Holly is the same way. Her reddish-blonde hair, her long be-freckled face and the general malaise she feels, which is related to us in voiceover, signify a girl who has literally outgrown being a teenager, at least in her eyes. She twirls her baton in the front yard, perhaps for a routine that will never even come. Kit sees her and is instantly drawn to her, and she to him. Dangerous boys have always been just the thing to get teenage girls out of the suburbs, which Holly’s commandeering father (Warren Oates) knows all to well. Kit shoots and kills Holly’s father and manufacture their own outlaw myth.

In the aforementioned “Bonnie and Clyde,” those Depression-era lovebirds were stand-ins for the ’60s counter-culture, and they turned all of their robberies and murders into their own private Woodstock festivals of non-conformity devolving into psychopathy. “Badlands,” and Kit and Holly’s relationship, is more complicated than the former’s. Kit and Holly’s relationship isn’t all that romantic, at least not in a traditional way (one could write thousands of words on this, but I’ll spare whoever does end up reading this). Sometimes it feels like they see each other as a means to an end. Kit likes having someone who buys his discount version of Dean’s aura, and Holly is dragged out of the South Dakota doldrums by this man of danger. Their outlaw descent is how they get off. They don’t enjoy sex all that much. They only have a few moments of youthful grace, like when they build a treehouse and dance along to the lusty bounce of Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange.” Are they just sociopaths who take all their excitement from the pain of others (like when they camp out at a millionaire’s house and them shoot him and his maid through a locked door)? Or is this a comment on the death of the ’60s, with the hope and magic of the counter-culture rotted black by Altamont tragedy and the dog days of Vietnam? 

Malick, and the brilliant, career-making performances by Spacek and Sheen, are too good to let any obvious indicators of an allegory dominate the quiet menace of “Badlands.” Along with Tak Fujimoto’s gorgeous cinematography and the lush, ironically jubilant score by George Tipton (pieces of which Tony Scott used in his Quentin Tarantino collabo “True Romance,” also a story of criminals in love), “Badlands” is a complete vision of youthful exuberance curdled into malice. From the opening, awkward courtship to Kit and Holly’s final waltz in the darkness to a mournful Nat King Cole ballad as law enforcement, and by extension the real world, close in on them, “Badlands” was the arrival of a monumental talent, putting a meditative spin on the outlaw myth, which is as endless as the Western sky. 

Grade: A