Movie Review – Blood Simple (1984)
by NIR SHALEV
Abby (Frances McDormand) is married to Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), a bar owner. Ray (John Getz) is an employee of Marty’s and is having an affair with Abby. It hasn’t been going on for very long, but long enough to make Marty suspicious. Marty hires a private eye, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to spy on the couple and to prove to him that they are, in fact in cahoots with one another. Some revealing photographs prove to Marty that his suspicion is correct and he soon hires Loren to kill Ray and Abby.
The Coen Brothers, although only Joel is credited as the director (as was the case up until 2004’s The Ladykillers), debuted their talents for the sinister and macabre with this neo-noir, contemporary classic. Set in its present time and taking place in Texas, a murder will take place but not of the cheating couple. Loren pretends that he killed the cheating couple and offers Marty fake “proof.” He collects his $10,000 payment, shoots Marty, and leaves with the cash in hand. But after having forgotten his cigarette lighter in Marty’s bar Loren ventures back in order to erase his tracks. However, Ray drops by the bar to converse with Marty and finds his dead carcass before Loren arrives. Panicked, he keeps the murder a secret from Abby because a) he hasn’t a clue as to whom the killer is, and b) the gun he finds on the floor, he realizes, belongs to Abby.
What is most intriguing about the plot, without giving too much away, is that Abby never finds out that Marty is killed. She hasn’t a clue about Marty’s murder or even Loren’s existence throughout.
Blood Simple takes its title from Dasheill Hammett’s novel “Red Harvest.” The term is “coined to describe the addled, fearful mindset people are in after a prolonged immersion in violent situations.”* The actions of the characters propel their next actions into a realm of uncertainty. Because people panic during situations they are uncomfortable or are unacquainted with, a mess is left behind and a trail of clues leading to guilt and mistakes is evident. When a bloodstain appears it leaves a fresh image in one’s mind and in this film it continues to re-emerge before Ray, adding to his guilt and complicating the situation. When Ray finds the bloodied Marty he is panicked because he is not a killer, then as he’s driving toward a farm at night to bury him he realizes that Marty’s still alive. Decisions, decisions….
Dan Hedaya is a familiar face but not a famous actor. Getting acquainted with him here is a good start because he plays a controlled jerk. His performance is of a concentrated anger, and his intensity is shown in his eyes first and in his actions second. But the real star of the show is M. Emmet Walsh. His Loren is almost a yokel, but is composed and is smart. He finds almost everything in life hilarious and jokes all the time; his laugh is infectious. He’s a born and bred cowboy who’s known Texas for all his life. Even though he may seem to enjoy life he hasn’t much guilt, and tasks like spying and murder are, to him, natural acts. A man is curious about his wife and so he’ll take the man’s cash and help him out. The man wants her rubbed out? So be it. Have my money ready.
But why does Loren cheat Marty? Maybe he simply has nothing against a young couple having an affair or maybe, on a sub-conscious level, he really hates jerks like Marty who are always tight and don’t know when to relax and have a good time. Nobody is really certain about Loren’s motivation. It’s not the “why” as much as it is the simple act of doing. Maybe Loren is compulsive.
The film features an eventual chase; Loren chases after Ray and Abby because all that stands between him and freedom is to actually commit the murder he was paid to do in the first place. It’s a similar line to the one he walked earlier but now it’s in a different direction with different consequences. He is a complex character that’s hidden in plain sight, due to his apparent simplicity and ability to fit in, but is simple enough to know when murder is fitting.
When sequences of action should take place the pacing of the film is a brought down to a deliberate crawl. If it was to be shot nowadays and by a different director it would incorporate quick-cut editing, a shaky camera, and ultra-violence.
As a debut film, the Coens struck gold with Blood Simple. Critics loved it, and still do today, and audience members were surprised to see a film that carried the Film Noir genes into a contemporary setting without treading on cliches or repeating classics. I am reminded of Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, another debut that put its director on the map and a neo-Noir that casts shadows where light usually is found, intoxicating us with its brooding atmosphere. However, unlike Body Heat, this film directs itself more toward a plausible realm without forgetting that it’s still only a movie. It places the “what if” scenario at the hands of an innocent man and watches as his guilt rises throughout. To other characters it appears that Ray keeps his cool and suppresses his fears, but the audience sees that he cannot. If confronted by Loren, even I wouldn’t be able to.
The Coen Brothers have a few masterpieces to their credit starting with this film, moving on to Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998), and landing strong with No Country for Old Men (2007). They are greatly familiar with Middle-America and its simplicities, and they love to showcase the dark side of human nature. One film may contain more realism than another but the same message is spread across the skies: they are here to take your breath away with complicated substance and their own personal style. They have become auteurs.
*Blood Simple Wikipedia entry