Perhaps I’m wrong in this assumption, but I’ve always felt that Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut film, Blood Simple (1984), has a tendency to fall under the shadow of their later neo-noir accomplishments, most notably Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007). While the film has popped back up into popular consciousness during the past decade thanks to the theatrical release of a Director’s Cut (one that was shockingly shorter and leaner than the original theatrical version…make a note Judd Apatow) and Zhang Yimou’s incredibly loose remake A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009, unreleased in the US), it still feels neglected, stranded somewhere in the mid-1980s. This feeling of neglect struck me when teaching American Film History in fall 2009 to a class of undergraduates. My traditional discussion icebreaker (which consists of asking the student for their name, major, and favorite film) yielded many students to throw up the titles of Coen Brothers’ films. When I asked how many of them had seen Blood Simple, I received a series of blank stares, which broke my heart. For some members of Generation Z, it seems that if a film was made before 1990 it isn’t worth watching (unless it’s Star Wars).
Eight weeks later, when we entered into the 1980s and early 1990s, I lectured on independent cinema, showing trailers from Blood Simple, Bottle Rocket (1996), and others. Blood Simple and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (also released in 1984), in the eyes of a many, mark the beginning of the American independent film movement that was fueled by the advent of videotape in the 1980s: both films won major awards at the U.S. Film Festival in 1985, the same year that the Sundance Institute took over management of the festival (which would later take the Sundance name). Nowadays, American indie film has been re-defined by later Sundance success stories (such as Little Miss Sunshine), many of which have involved the guiding hand of the Hollywood studios in the form of specialty divisions, burying the legacy of indie films that appeared at the festival before Steven Soderbergh’s industrial game changer: sex, lies, and videotape (1989).
Yet, the legacy of Blood Simple is not only defined by its temporal placement at the beginning of a major film movement; it is also a damn fine film (unlike the similarly influential Easy Rider, which has been canonized for starting the waves of the New Hollywood phase despite being a mediocre film). The spell of the film is that it appears to be deceptively typical: Ray (John Getz) is having an affair with Abby (Frances McDormand), his boss’s (Dan Hedaya) wife. When the wronged husband discovers his wife’s adultery at the hands of his disloyal employee, he hires private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder the couple. You can imagine where the film goes from here, but odds are that your generically-informed educated guesses will go unfulfilled in the best ways possible. Despite its title, the film is anything but simple.
Rather, the Coens use the film to play games with our perception of the events. The film quietly takes the point-of-view of an omniscient narrator (we are privy to events that Ray, Abby, her husband, and Visser are unaware of), which sets up the film as a cosmic joke. For instance, when Abby’s husband is killed at the hands of Visser, who plants Abby’s gun at the scene of the crime, Ray suspects Abby. Meanwhile, Abby suspects that Ray and her husband have been fighting (after a long, uncomfortable sequence which I won’t discuss in detail). Yet, despite their assumptions and their feelings for one another, the two lovers are incapable of discussing the events with one another, quietly stewing in their own educated suspicions. While we benefit from a series of reveals and surprises along the way we are, unlike Ray and Abby, in on the joke and when Visser lets out a bloodcurdling laugh during the film’s final moments, we cannot help but join him. Unlike other noirs that tackle sexual identity (Bound), contrast metropolitan life with that in the suburbs (The Last Seduction), or reach for the classic existential angst thread (The Hit), Blood Simple deals with two lovers’ failure to communicate.
The Coens nail their blend of Western iconography and noir here, thanks to the help of their early, frequent collaborator Barry Sonnenfeld (who would later turn to directing with The Addams Family and Get Shorty). Sonnenfeld’s work, in coordination with the editing and choreography (particularly in the climax) is both stunning and chilling, particularly when it comes to that white gloved hand creeping across a windowsill. Moreover, their ability to work with actors (Getz and McDormand especially) without venturing into the caricature that has marked many of their later films is a refreshing change, a form of direction I wish the Coens would return to once and a while. Unlike their later films, which produce a perversity via wide-angle lenses and quirky performances, the Coens use music for a similar purpose here (almost akin to what David Lynch did with Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet”), most notably The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song.” The song’s playful licks of Xylophone, the rising strings, and the Levi Stubb’s vocals spelling out a longing for a departing lover are jarringly placed over shots of a pipe dripping water onto a pair of dead eyes, making the message overly clear: the Coen Brothers’ film may feel like the same old noir but, like most neo-noirs, it has a different meaning thanks to the subversion of a key generic convention: the protagonist never solves the mystery, only we are capable of doing so.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.