Under the Rock
Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed much attention of late, following their critically acclaimed Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998), as well as their new film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a hit at Cannes and about to be released in the States. But before all of that came the Coens’ first feature, 1984’s Blood Simple. Promoted as being “digitally enhanced and tastefully restored,” this version of the film is merely a remixed and restored version of the original. No added scenes or pyrotechnics are needed, however, for the movie to stand on its own sixteen years later. Though shot on a shoestring budget by first-time feature filmmakers, the movie encapsulates all that has come to typify the Coen brothers’ style: engaging narrative, inventive direction, and the juxtaposition of grim violence with moments of sublime, sometimes surreal, human behavior.
The bizarre behavior depicted in this cinematic debut is complemented by the film’s manipulation of setting. Like Fargo‘s Minnesota or The Big Lebowski‘s Southern California, Blood Simple‘s Central Texas is a crucial element in the characterization and plot. Beyond their characters’ remarkable accents, the Coen brothers have a knack for establishing a film’s mood through their choice of location. Blood Simple begins with a voiceover by M. Emmet Walsh speculating on the benefits of Russian communism before finally admitting, “What I know about is Texas. And down here, you’re on your own.” The film’s repeated images of the abandoned oil pumps and desolate fields surrounding Austin are a fitting backdrop to this moody tale of a cheating wife and her jealous, murderous husband.
This grim story stars perennial Coen brothers’ heroine (and Ethan’s wife after this film) Frances McDormand as Abby, the sweet, talkative southern girl who cuckolds her malevolent hubby Marty (Dan Hedaya). At the heart of the film lies Marty’s diabolical eagerness for revenge against the wife who left him and the man she left him for. The film’s brooding pace quickens after Marty hires a private detective named Visser (Walsh) to kill both Abby and her lover Ray (played by Tom Wopat look-alike John Getz). The remainder of the film displays storytelling that is vintage Coen brothers: a two-timing wife avoids the wrath of a two-timing hit man who she believes to be her vengeful husband. The husband, in turn, actually spends the majority of the film dying from wounds inflicted by a series of murderous culprits, none of whom know about the other. Simple indeed.
In addition to this tangled narrative, Blood Simple is also remarkable for its visual originality. Fans of the Evil Dead series will particularly enjoy the film’s creative camera work. Written while Joel Coen was working on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1982), Blood Simple incorporates many of the athletic, erratic camera techniques that make all three of Raimi’s Evil Dead films so stunning. In addition, Blood Simple employs stylish dissolves and scene changes that give the work a flare uncommon to most low-budget features. In one scene, Visser shoots through a wall into a darkened room, the bullet holes creating visually arresting bursts of light. Such striking artistry makes the film more than just a typical shoot-em-up. The eclectic cast of characters lends the film further substance and originality. The supporting backbone of any Coen brother story resides in the attractive quirkiness of its players. John Turturo as the tortured intellectual Barton Fink (Barton Fink 1991) and Nicholas Cage as the dim-witted kidnapper H.I. McDonough (Raising Arizona 1987) are just two examples of Coen characters (and actors) whose engaging personalities and perpetual sorrows appeal to and repulse audiences at the same time. Blood Simple offers up its own menagerie of skewed individuals. For example, it’s almost hard to keep up with Marty’s many moods, which run from alternately brooding to violent to pathetic, as he faces the loss of his wife to another man. At one point, he breaks in to Ray’s house in an effort to kidnap Abby, but his sadistic intent is undercut by a swift kick in the groin by Abby. Marty’s many faces make him unpredictable and, ultimately, interesting to watch. The audience can’t know if he will murder his wife in the next instant or get himself killed in the attempt.
As Abby, McDormand is alternately coy and oblivious, a seemingly carefree soul with a strong instinct for self-preservation. Abby changes from damsel-in-distress to an empowered, gun-toting woman during the film, all the while exuding a kind of bewildered charm that allows the audience to feel both pity and admiration for her. Walsh, however, steals every scene he’s in. Whether hunched behind the wheel of his sinister, powder-blue Volkswagen bug or chasing flies from his sweat-soaked forehead, Walsh’s Visser is at once jovial and creepy, a cold-blooded killer who is infinitely likeable. Just like the barren fields outside of Austin, Visser is simultaneously seductive and repulsive, affably despicable. He conducts his dark business with a perpetual grin that could not be farther from sinister. Visser is just a happy-go-lucky hitman whose incongruous actions and attitudes make him, like Marty, unpredictable and fun to watch.
If nothing else, Blood Simple‘s re-release allows a theater-going audience to look back at what first established the cinematic trademarks of a Coen brothers’ production: unique characterization, visual flare, and story lines that careen wildly from outrageous comedy to gripping horror. Long before critical accolades, long before million dollar budgets, the Coens’ work revealed a uniquely offbeat vision and engaging, entertaining storytelling that overturned the rock of human behavior and took a close look at all the lunacy and savagery beneath.