Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.
What is it about the Coen brothers that makes them the right choice for the start of this series? For one, they have an incredible body of work with only a few duds in the mix. For another, they’re not an obvious pick but are still popular enough to spark conversation in the comments. There’s also the personal element. The Coens are the first directors I ever gravitated towards stemming back to when I saw Fargo at way too young an age. Their blend of quirky and bleak captured my attention as a teenager and, unlike most things from that age, has held up to scrutiny. It only makes sense to pay tribute to the two guys who ignited my love of films.
Another aspect that is fascinating with the Coens, one that is more in line with what I want to talk about in future entries, is how much of their style is here in this debut picture. Blood Simple is a seemingly straightforward tale that is layered in twists and miscommunications. It is a mashup of various genres (namely, western, noir, and horror) that uses pitch-black humor to lighten the dread. Unlike many directorial debuts, this feels in line with their overall work.
As with all of their early films, Joel and Ethan wrote, directed, and edited Blood Simple together with Joel getting sole directing credit and Ethan billed as the producer. The duo edited the picture under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, another recurring credit in their movies. It’s easy to see why their style already feels established given how in control they are of the total filmmaking process.
The general plot of Blood Simple is a straightforward noir story. It is in the details that the movie shows its true colors. The film follows Ray (John Getz), a bartender who begins a love affair with Abby (Frances McDormand in her debut). Abby is married to his boss, Marty (Dan Hedaya), who hires amoral detective, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to spy on the couple and, eventually, to murder them. From there, things go off the rails at a remarkable pace.
The key to Blood Simple’s success is that none of the characters are fully aware of what’s going on, but the audience has all the information. The film uses miscommunication to set up dire consequences, a recurring theme that the Coens will use to impressive effect in later works. It’s a dark picture that incorporates some of the character-hating nihilism that detractors have used as a criticism of the brothers. It makes sense for this picture, as nihilism is a driving force in most noir stories.
Make no mistake about it, Blood Simple is a noir film through and through. From the first scene of Ray and Abby talking in a car, their faces shrouded in shadow to the movie’s most infamous scene, as a not-so-dead body shambles away from the headlights of that same car. The Coens pay tribute to the trappings of the genre while also subverting them with shots that feel at home in a horror feature. All with the help of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who continually finds inventive ways to pit light and darkness against each other. All the while, the sweat and grime of the film’s Texan setting stays in the foreground.
Joel’s time assisting Sam Raimi in editing his own film debut, The Evil Dead, clearly paid off here. Horror elements creep in and out of Blood Simple and become more pronounced as the tension ratchets up in the film’s closing act. There’s even a POV camera shot, Raimi’s “signature move,” during an attempted abduction scene. The blending of horror with other genre elements would also come back in later films, although it might be hard to top the slasher movie vibe in the final moments of this picture.
Directing isn’t the only area where the Coens get to shine. The duo spent over a year on postproduction and that attention to perfecting the details shows through in the final edit. The slow swoop of a ceiling fan changes over to a darkened bedroom, the sound of a shovel scrapping across the ground and a final shot that blows you off your feet. It’s clear that the Coens threw everything they could think of into this. The work of first-time directors who weren’t sure they’d have a second chance. Their future editing may be less flashy than this, but it is no less assured.
Blood Simple also marks the first partnership between the brothers and Frances McDormand, their most frequent collaborator, and Joel’s eventual wife. McDormand’s performance stands in stark contrast to her co-stars, Getz and Hedaya, who operate on opposite sides of the “clueless-sleazy” spectrum. Abby proves more capable and becomes the film’s true protagonist when we get to the harrowing last act. McDormand’s ability to convey the rising terror and confusion as Abby’s situation spirals out of control is impressive for an actor’s film debut. If Blood Simple is the Coens showcasing all the skills that will make them renowned directors, McDormand does the same with her acting.
Still, there is one character who towers over the film: Loren Visser. As portrayed by M. Emmet Walsh, the perpetually sweaty detective is a force of chaos, affable and comical on the surface but cold and calculating beneath. Ray and Abby’s affair sets the plot in motion, but it is Visser who keeps the story turning. In him, we find the beginnings of an archetype that will define some of the Coen’s most memorable villains. A man whose quirks disguise his sinister motivations. He’s not the dumb criminal, he is something much worse: capable.
Blood Simple was a modest success at the box-office, but a huge win with critics. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and earned rave reviews from Siskel & Ebert. That positive word of mouth put the Coens on the map and helped secure future financing. While their debut is a darker, moodier piece than much of their future output, it feels at home in their filmography. It captures a curdled version of Americana that is full of cheating, death and absurdity. A bare bones approach for many elements that we’ll see in later works. It is at once a great entry point into the Coens’ work and a promise of what’s coming.
Next Time: The Coen brothers find their quirkier side with baby-napping fun of Raising Arizona.
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