Returning to Blood Simple. after three subsequent decades of Coen Brothers movies is an interesting undertaking. On the one hand, Blood Simple. predicts the expert temperament for which the directing duo have been addressed as living legends. Long, dry conversations between Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh unearth the roots of the kind of drawling double talk that’d approach perfection in Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou. Dreadful traipses through thick sheaths of tension, notably throughout the backrooms of the Hedaya’s character’s deliciously creepy bar, plant the seeds for what would sprout into masterpiece in Fargo and No Country for Old Men.
On the other hand, the Coens’ 1984 debut doesn’t speak in quite the same rhythms as the rest of their filmography, as should be expected from the earliest turnout of any artist with as vivid a penmanship as the pair. The ambiance of Blood Simple. are considerably more fluid than the thick, stale air of just about each one of the Coen dramas from Miller’s Crossing onward. Speech patterns don’t reach the level of verse that we see in everything from The Hudsucker Proxy straight through Hail, Caesar!.
Though it’s unfair to hold Blood Simple. up against any of the Coen projects it preceded, it’s almost impossible to consider the film in vacuum. Approaching Blood Simple. here and now in 2016, by way of its 4K restoration, anyone who’s spent even nominal time with the directors in the interim years would be hard-pressed to not compare the “philosophizing” of M. Emmet Walsh’s two-bit gun-for-hire up to the solemn ruminations of Tommy Lee Jones at the end of No Country, the skulking cat-and-mouse game in Frances McDormand’s unlit studio apartment up to the doom-filled climax of Fink—or McDormand’s performance itself up to every other she has given in a Coen-helmed feature.
This is such a difficult task because of the very fact that you can evoke such a specific picture simply by mentioning the Coen name. In the 32 years to pass since Blood Simple. hit theaters, the Minnesota-born brothers have become an entity that transcends any and all of their films; their voice and aesthetic seems to exist between features, stringing the lot together in some kind of unspoken cinematic universe.
As such, deviation from this system will undoubtedly be met with a reaction all its own. It doesn’t matter if the deviation is negative, such as in the uniquely attitude-deficient True Grit, or positive, as you might say of Inside Llewyn Davis (which I’d call the most naturalistic of the duo’s recent films, and the very best thing they’ve directed to date). This “break from routine”—even in the case of revisiting Blood Simple., which predated the routine—is something you’re bound to shoulder even in your most dutiful efforts to consider the film on its own terms.
As such, it’s tough for me to say if Blood Simple. thrives solely on its contemporaneous accomplishments—reinventing the Hitchcockian thriller through the lens of Peckinpah—or on the trust in its directors that we carry into a viewing. I’m not entirely sure if the chills I get watching actors like Hedaya and McDormand navigate this damp, dimly lit story about deceit and betrayal because I can see the film breaking through the genre output of its day, or because I’m able to spot the earliest, rawest signifiers of the Coens’ genius. Either way, the highs are there.
They permeate Hedaya’s magnetic corrosion, that which renders him ever the more monstrous as the movie creeps onward. Just as we occasionally sympathize with this emotionally crippled creature, we see glimmers of demonism in our ostensible hero, McDormand. Her strength and survivalism make her our natural buoy, though we’re only inclined to trust her for so long.
This wickedness is a staple of the Coen brand; it drips from every corner of Blood Simple., whose main driving force is to reveal the pinnacle of darkness in every character and setting it introduces. Slowly and surely, we reach peak menace in all elements presented, and that patient amble is where the film mines its gold.
No, Blood Simple. is not the most charming or the most exciting Coen film, and will perhaps never hold up to the legion of crime capers, dry comedies, and existential spirals down the drain of the New York folk music scene that the directing brothers have delivered ever since. Its relative independence from the Coen tongue is likely what will keep it in the shadow of the Barton Finks, Fargos, No Countrys, and Llewyn Daviss for the rest of time. But it’s not on name alone that Blood Simple. founded that lineage—in the lyricism, the patience, and the doom, we see hints of the legacy yet to come.
3.5 out of 5 burritos
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.