It’s weird to think that I was only alive for about three months in a world with no Coen Bros movies. Their 32-year career as writers, producers, and directors of some of the most complex, thought-provoking, enjoyable, and weirdest movies ever made has been an especially fruitful one. They are truly singular (binary?) voices. Like all great auteurs, which Joel and Ethan Coen undoubtedly are, it’s fun to go back and look at their oldest films, to see where they’ve come from. Their debut feature, Blood Simple, remains one of their strangest and sparsest films in a catalog full of silence-filled oddities. Criterion has released the movie on Blu-ray, and it looks and sounds better than ever.
At once a typical neo-noir, a southern melodrama, and a straight-up horror movie, Blood Simple plays in a world where four different characters could be the protagonist and yet none of them actually are. Motivations are kept secret from even the audience most of the time, and nobody seems able to talk to each other rationally, either spouting jokes or outwardly threatening each other. It’s a case of constant misunderstanding and unfortunate happenstance that leads to some pretty gruesome, bloody deaths.
A young Frances McDormand plays Abby, the wife of Marty (Dan Hedaya), a local saloon owner in Nowheresville, TX. She has struck up a friendship with Ray (John Getz), a bartender at the bar, and it quickly becomes physical. Marty has suspected his young wife for some time of infidelity and has hired a slimy, sweaty, constantly-laughing private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to follow them. He does, and gets pictures, which leads Marty to want to hire him to kill the couple. But if things were just that (blood) simple, it wouldn’t be a Coen Bros movie. Eventually everyone suspects each other of something, and characters are killed off, leading to a showdown between two people who had no other reason to meet in the first place.
I truly love Blood Simple, perhaps even more than I did in college when I first saw it. You can definitely see how it informed their later masterpieces like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. They also very clearly love the twistyness of a Jim Thompson or Dashiel Hammett pulp novel, because every frame of this film is dripping with pulpy goodness. I also forgot how much of its style and cinematography (by Barry Sonnenfeld) I ripped off whole cloth for a short film I made. When a not-quite-dead character is getting buried out in a field with nothing but the headlights to illuminate the action, that clearly stayed with me, because I did almost shot-for-shot the same thing in my student film. Awhoops!
The Blu-ray from Criterion sheds some delicious light on the making of the movie. Traditionally anti-commentary track (they oddly only ever did one, which was The Man Who Wasn’t There for some reason), the Coens here sit with Sonnenfeld for a sort of partial commentary. They’re in a room, and we see them as they watch the movie, and they have telestrators explaining various things. It’s not the whole movie, but cuts together in to a nice hour of humor and revelation.
Next up is a fantastic discussion about the film and their early career between Joel and Ethan and writer Dave Eggers. This is reminiscent of a similar discussion from the Inside Llewyn Davis with the Coens and Guillermo del Toro. These are incredibly fascinating and I hope Criterion gets to put out more Coens movies and will continue the trend.
Rounding out the disc’s extras, we have interviews with composer Carter Burwell, sound mixer Skip Lievsay, and actors Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh, all of which offer much depth and context for things that happened in the film. McDormand’s interview really stands out as enlightening, given the film began not only her film career but her life with now-husband Joel Coen.
Blood Simple is a tremendous opening salvo in the Coen Bros’ career, and it’s still a surprisingly dark, chance-taking kind of movie that relies on visual storytelling in lieu of dialogue. Most first-timers over-write, but the Coens knew when to let the actor’s faces and actions tell the story. A good lesson for all budding filmmakers. And, just try to watch this movie and not have that Four Tops song in your head forever.
Images: Criterion/Michael Boland/USA Films