By MARK DISTEFANO
Blood Simple, released in 1984, is a quirky, twisted crime thriller. More importantly, it is the debut directorial release of Joel and Ethan Coen, a treasure from a time before Sundance. Produced on a budget of under $2 million, the brothers reportedly raised money for the film by carting around their trailer reel to the houses of local dentists and lawyers, who then bought equity in the project. Despite being made on the cheap, however, Blood Simple is a rare first feature that immediately establishes a thoroughly original voice. This film introduced the mainstream to the idiosyncratic sensibility of the Coens and exuded a distinct style would be seen, heard and felt in every one of their ensuing works.
The plot is a mixture of gallows humor, seedy characters, bursts of violence and sharp plotting. These are traits which have come to define the Coen brothers, and can be seen in nearly all of their efforts — parallels to Barton Fink, Fargo, and Miller’s Crossing quickly come to mind. Somewhere down in the more noirish realms of Texas, a sleazy private investigator named Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) is hired by jealous husband Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) who suspects his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) of cheating on him. The suspicion proves true — she has run off with another man named Ray (John Getz). When Marty learns of this, he hires Visser to kill his wife and her lover, but Visser double-crosses him, setting off a chain of chaotic, strange events that are equally as shocking as they are darkly humorous.
As P.I. Visser, M. Emmet Walsh is by far the most interesting character in the movie. The Coens have admitted to thinking the film amateurish themselves but in the figure of this unsavory, 10 gallon hat-donning detective, they have a ceaselessly entertaining creation. To an extent, Visser would inform some of the other characters in their canon, from the two hitmen in Fargo to the assassin in No Country for Old Men to Rooster Cogburn in. Highly professional at carrying out immoral deeds to scratch out a living, Visser truly is quintessential Coen. Frances McDormand, though given little to do in her role, shows plenty of early potential in the first of many collaborations with her husband Joel, which later leads up to her iconic turn as a very pregnant Minnesotan police chief.
The writing of the film is fantastic. As always, the brothers never show off. They let their characters do all the talking for them — it’s never the author’s voice you hear on screen, like you might in a Quentin Tarantino picture. Walsh spins the Coens’ lines into a vaguely amused, ominous drawl, particularly in one scene where he makes light of his employer breaking his finger. “A friend of mine broke his hand a while back,” he intones. “Put in a cast. Very next day he takes a fall, protects his bad hand, falls on his good one, breaks that too. I say to him, ‘Creighton, I hope your wife loves you. ‘Cause for the next five weeks you can’t even wipe your own ass.’”
Of particular regard are the opposing ends of this picture, which opens on the gentle plains of the Texan landscape and finishes on a sordid yet bizarrely comic note. The movie’s subtle, twisting, turning narrative includes several Coen-esque situations — a body disposed of in an incinerator, a recurring shot of a man slumped on his desk next to a hook full of fish — but the ending yields the most macabre and quintessentially Coen imagery. Visser tails Abby to her home, intent on killing her, where a freakish climax, which would be appalling if it weren’t so ridiculous, unfolds. To those who have yet to see the film, stick it out just for that last scene, which concludes with Visser studying a series of pipes underneath a bathroom sink.
As the shady detective bursts into laughter out of nowhere, he calls out the film’s final line: “Well ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.” It’s a line to end a movie that could only have come from the minds of the two madmen who gave us The Dude, the Anton Chigurh haircut and the Hebrew writing on the Gentile’s teeth.
Blood Simple will play at Cornell Cinema Friday and Sunday at 8 p.m.