March 19, 2005

Introducing the Coens

(Better late than never.)

Spoiler warning: This is part review, part critical essay, and as such may give away important plot details. If you don't want to risk the movie being spoiled for you before you've seen it, come back later. If you don't particularly care, read on.

Short version: Blood Simple is the first feature film by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. It introduces themes, plot points, and stylistic elements that recur in their later work. Thus, qua Coen film, it is indispensible to appreciating their work. On the other hand, if you're just looking for something to kill some time on a Friday night, I recommend a later, similar Coen film such as Fargo or The Man Who Wasn't There.

Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), who owns a redneck bar somewhere in Texas, believes that his wife Abby is cheating on him. He hires private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh, Blade Runner) to spy on her. It turns out she is sleeping with Ray (John Getz), one of Marty's bartenders. Ray quits his job before Marty can fire him, but first he demands the two weeks' back pay he is owed. Marty refuses, insinuating that sharing Abby's bed is payment in full.

After a botched abduction attempt, Marty hires Visser again to do something "not strictly legal": he offers him $10,000 to kill Ray and Abby. The detective accepts the offer. But he's more interested in the money than carrying out the contract. When he double-crosses Marty, he sets off a chain reaction. No one really seems to know what's going on as the body count rises.

This movie, inspired by James Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, is billed as a black comedy. But it's a comedy in the sense of a "comedy of errors." Blood Simple is a film noir, where the plot and the characters are driven by circumstances gone beyond their control. While the audience knows exactly what's going on, none of the characters have all the pieces of the puzzle. They are all motivated by erroneous assumptions. Ray, finding Abby's Saturday Night Special near Marty's body, assumes she did the deed, not realizing Visser stole it. He cleans up the murder scene to protect her. In the movie's most macabre scene, while attempting to get rid of Marty's body, he discovers that he isn't quite dead, so he buries him alive in the middle of a field - and, not being too bright, implicates himself in the process. Abby thinks Ray is responsible for stealing thousands of dollars from Marty's bar. Neither of them is aware of Visser apart from a vague idea that they are being followed. Visser, accidentally leaving his lighter behind at the murder scene, assumes (falsely) that Ray and Abby are onto him.

Hedaya, best known as Carla's ex-husband Nick Tortelli on Cheers, excels at greasy, not-too-bright characters, so he plays Marty with just the right amount of sliminess. A very young Frances McDormand (Fargo) makes her on-screen debut here as well. John Getz is the weak link; he doesn't make the simple-minded Ray into anything memorable. But it's veteran character actor Walsh who makes this movie. His portrayal of Visser ("Elks Man of the Year"), in his yellow leisure suit and perpetual film of sweat, is just creepy.

The Coens' director of photography is Barry Sonnenfeld, who would collaborate with them for a number of movies before embarking on a successful directing career of his own (most notably with Men in Black). Blood Simple uses a number of trademark Coen cinematography techniques. The so-called "Raimi cam," for example, is an oddball camera rush used extensively in Sam Raimi's film The Evil Dead, which Joel Coen edited. In one early scene in Blood Simple, the camera tracks over top of Marty's bar, doing a bunny-hop over a passed-out drunk. The Coens make frequent make use of disguised cuts, focusing on an object common to two settings (such as the ceiling fans in Marty's office and Abby's bedroom) to transition between those locations. This movie makes good use of light and shadow and high contrasts. Much of the action takes place in the dark. In one memorable use of chiaroscuro lighting, seemingly solid shafts of light penetrate a black room through freshly made bullet holes.

Another longtime Coen collaborator, Carter Burwell, provided the film's music. The original score, consisting mainly of haunting solo piano, underscores the creepiness of the plot nicely. The recurring use of The Four Tops' hit "It's the Same Old Song" (restored to the DVD edition of Blood Simple after licensing concerns forced the Coens to substitute "I'm a Believer" for the home VHS release) gives the ending an ironic twist.

If there is any negative in this movie, it's the lack of truly likeable characters. No one in this story is truly good: Visser is sinister, Marty is sleazy, and even the two protagonists are a murderer and an adulteress who don't really trust each other. It's hard to sympathize with characters who do despicable things, even if their enemies are even more despicable.

Think of Blood Simple as a dry run for 1995's Fargo. If you're in the mood simply for a good thriller, check out that later and superior film. The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coens' 2001 neo-noir, also revisits the motif of the simple plan gone wrong with disastrous consequences. But if you want to see how the distinctive style of two of the most creative filmmakers currently working got its start, Blood Simple is the place to begin.