Not Strictly Legal: The Coen Brothers' Blood Simple
Released in January of 1985, the noir thriller Blood Simple is the first film directed by Joel Coen and produced by his brother Ethan, a distinction that actually makes complete sense. The reason being is because upon closer examination, the film meets most of the expectations of a noir story, but still crackles with a dark humor that sets it apart from typical bloody thrillers. Shot in Austin, Texas with a reported budget of 1.5 million, Blood Simple often gets forgotten when the best films of the Coen Brothers are discussed, due to its apparent lack of high-end production value and big stars. Blood Simple is a fascinating film to me because the plotting of the film has a similar brilliance to their later films, yet the filmmaking is so raw that it’s endearing. Make no mistake, this is the classic definition of an indie film – it was screened at the Toronto Film Festival, then promptly turned down by every studio, and finally released by Circle Films.
In the film, Dan Hedaya plays a misanthropic bar owner who hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). The private eye, played by M. Emmet Walsh, is the revelation here, driving the action as an absolute sleaze that melds perfectly with the tone of Joel and Ethan Coen. Rather than killing the wife and the lover, the private eye chooses to kill the bar owner, which sets in motion a series of events that is taut and filled with expertly balanced tension. What’s impressive about the film is that it never spins into absurdity, which is likely due to the crackerjack screenplay co-written by the brothers.
The title “Blood Simple” comes from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which essentially describes the mania that inflicts someone after they have committed murder. Obsessive fans of hard-boiled fiction, Joel and Ethan Coen crafted their first film in the mold of their favorite stories, but with a unique comic spin. What’s important to know about the tone of any Coen Brothers film is that they rarely delve into the world of parody. Instead, their humor almost always originates from the character’s stupidity that makes perfect sense in the story. Probably the best example of this idea is the most famous scene in the film, in which M. Emmet Walsh’s character is in one room and tries to reach around to the adjacent window and manages to get his hand impaled into the windowsill by Frances McDormand. What’s so effective about this sequence is that as visceral and tense as it is, the iconic surprise of the scene makes it uniquely comical. Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography is also particularly stunning here, as the light beams through the bullet holes with both dread and wonder.
I first saw Blood Simple in a film appreciation class in college and was taken by the use of the Texas locale. Filmed mostly in Austin and Round Rock, the environment felt much more dangerous and exciting than a typical noir thriller set in Los Angeles or New York. The Coen Brothers presented Texas as a bare, lifeless landscape where “down here… you’re on your own.” Decades later, they won the Oscar for Best Picture with No Country For Old Men, which also used Texas in a similar fashion, but it was obviously more polished and had the benefit of a well-received novel.
Although it’s incredibly unfair, a criticism that Blood Simple seems to often receive is that it pales in comparison to films like Fargo, Raising Arizona, and even more somber efforts like Miller’s Crossing. I strongly disagree with this argument because it really misses the point of what makes this film exceptional – it’s the purest version of their genius, with the brilliance shining bright in their writing, which to me, has always been their north star.
If one needs to study a blueprint of what makes a Coen Brothers movie indelibly theirs, then look no further than Blood Simple. The plotting is so pure to their atheistic that it feels so much more than a film that they made to cut their teeth on filmmaking. Rather, it’s a film that established their incredibly specific tone that has been present in almost every film they’ve made. While a lion’s share of their films are fantastic, Blood Simple is the undiluted batch that will most definitely leave a mark.