Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blood Simple (1984)

QUICK NOTE: I wrote this back in July as I was first starting to get motivated on this movie website/blog idea so there are outdated references to "Burn After Reading" as the latest Coen Bros film. This is no longer accurate as their 1 movie a year plan has recently given us "A Serious Man" which I haven't seen yet.


The title "Blood Simple" references the state of mind some enter in the aftermath of a murder. I think it aptly fits this very dark "Comedy of Errors" type scenario. A film populated with miscreants making one "simple", bad decision after another, with misdirected violence playing out before our eyes. You can only shake your head and wish the characters could see the big picture. Alas, you the viewer are the sole recipient of the complete, delicious puzzle.

“Blood Simple” is the first film from the now legendary Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. It immediately establishes the brothers’ dominance over 21st Century Film Noir. They understand and utilize the classic archetypes of the femme fatale, the jealous husband, the private eye, etc. The simple, haunting piano melody that weaves through the film I'd put in my top five most effective movie themes and sets the tone perfectly. The Coen’s signature though (and the twist that they add to the proceedings) is that classic mix of brilliance and buffoonery, double crosses and dumb luck, fate and mischief. These elements are firmly in place here and have defined their subsequent efforts up to and including their latest, "Burn After Reading."

On a lean budget of 1.5 million and the shoulders of some great A to B list talent like Frances McDormand (Fargo, Burn After Reading) who many of you know became Mrs. Joel Coen the year after this was released, the memorable character actor M. Emmet Walsh (The Jerk), John Getz (The Fly) and, of course, Dan Hedaya an excellent supporting actor who has shown up in films as wide ranging as Clueless and Mulholland Drive, and one of my wife's more unusual and troubling celebrity crushes! The Coen’s flagship film is, indeed, one of lasting impact (so much so that I recently read about a foreign language remake from established filmmaker Zhang Yimou, which is highly unusual as it’s typically Hollywood ripping off superior foreign language films).

Like their recent triumph "No Country For Old Men", our story unfolds in the barren landscapes of Texas (with the occasional Everytown, USA suburb thrown in). Like a great many of The Coen's films, it's about plans gone awry. Abbie (McDormand) is a woman ready to leave her husband but not prepared to do it alone. We meet her just after she's asked the bartender, Ray (Getz) from her husband’s establishment to take her home one stormy night. They establish that Getz is a decent enough fellow with his reluctance to sleep with another man's wife (particularly his boss's I suppose) but he admits "I've always liked you" and his scruples are short lived as they are soon engaged in the classic "roll in the hay". This situation is made more complicated by her husband (Hedaya) who doesn't seem at all prepared to let his lady go free. There's a great exchange between Hedaya and Getz fairly early on that is not only wrought with tension but manages to reference Getz's "I'm no marriage counselor" quips from the opening scene and foreshadows the moment near the climax where Abbie says "I ain't done nothing funny", loading it with suspicion after Getz's brain has gone "Blood Simple").

We meet Walsh’s unnamed Private Detective/Hitman/Scumbag For Hire character in all his yellow suited cheapness in Hedaya’s office the next day as he confirms, with photographs he took the night before, that his wife is sleeping with the help. Hedaya lets his eyebrows do the heavy lifting in an excellent restrained performance of slow burn intimidation that constantly hints at the violence and menace that unquestionably contributed to his wife's running for the hills.

This scenario is a crime of passion just waiting to happen on somebody’s part. You can certainly see that Hedaya might have a murder in him but with so many double and triple crosses, you're not quite sure he’ll ever get the chance. Abbie's not truly a Femme Fatale either (or is she?) as she ultimately never gives us any good reason to doubt her insincerity. It's similar to their latest collaboration in "Burn After Reading" from the standpoint that she ends up prompting all these men to jump through elaborate hoops and destroy each other so that she can have her way (but does so in such a naive way that for all the wrath she unleashes, you still kind of root for her and absolve her for the inadvertent nightmare world she creates for those around her). Who among them is truly prepared to get their hands dirty?? The answer ultimately...is all of them...under the right circumstances...just like you and me! :)

I spoke with my father recently about two films that were both really effective in simulating what it feels like to watch your lies bury you in a hot mess (the two in question were Before The Devil Knows Your Dead and Notes On A Scandal by the way). I'd add Blood Simple to this sub-genre and imagine I could think of a few others if I put my mind to it. Let's call it the "People In Deep Shit” section or "Just Keeps Getting Worse" is perhaps a better title. These are tales of adultery, crime, violence and other various forms of deception and ruthlessness. It's like waking from a dream where you're facing incarceration or just know that you've done something very bad...and that "they" will get you...and punish you for it.

I want to add that the DVD release featuring commentary from "Kenneth Loring of Forever Young Films" is probably the most delightful and unusual bonus feature I've ever encountered. I must research the origins of this either improvised or brilliantly scripted performance. It is a track full of petty jealousies toward fake people we've never heard of, imaginary "deleted scenes" (the one involving the hitman's lighter being a precious family heirloom from his childhood in Bulgaria comes to mind) and a slew of nonsense "film facts" such as the dog being "actually animatronic" or how the opening scene in the car had to be shot in reverse including having the actors hang upside down while delivering the dialog backwards. Needless to say, it was a hilariously bizarre bonus feature on an otherwise bare-bones disc but I will keep my fingers crossed that they keep this on whatever future Blu-Ray release I'm sure is coming (and hopefully some new "traditional" bonus features as well).

So, if you’re like me and enjoy seeing the progression of your favorite filmmakers, go check out Blood Simple and see how the Coen Brothers knocked it out of the park right from the get-go! Grade: A+

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