Blood Simple

Studio: Criterion

Sep 19, 2016 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Marty owns a bar in Texas. He's married to Abby. Abby is having an affair with Ray. Ray tends bar at Marty's. Visser is a private detective. Marty hires Visser to follow Abby and Ray. Things get complicated from there.

Revisiting the 1984 debut of writing/directing team Joel and Ethan Coen somehow only serves to amplify their mystique. Although they've spent the last three decades cementing themselves as two of the most consistent, unique and spotlight-averse voices in American cinema, it's amazing how fully formed and self-assured Blood Simple feels, as though it just coalesced from the dust on some wind-swept Midwestern highway. 

Although it has several features that would become Coen tropes - wildly misinformed people trying to kill and outwit each other, the flat expanses of middle America as backdrop, Frances McDormand in her first film role - Blood Simple feels distinctly removed from the rest of the brothers’ work.  Their usual sprawling cast of misfits and weirdos at the margins is reduced to four principal characters and less than ten total speaking parts. Their generally muted, earthy color palettes are here splashed with the fuzzy neon of cheap bars and the eighties in general. It's easily their most serious film, with the possible exception of their other visit to Texas, No Country for Old Men. Blood Simple plays like a low-rent cross between that film and Fargo; all sordid little noir tales plucked from the city and dropped in the middle of nowhere. 

The only indication of their customary dark wit comes in the form of the Visser, the crooked investigator played by M. Emmett Walsh. Looking like a cross between a toad and your least favorite uncle, Walsh is the most entertaining element of the film by a country mile. Speaking in a wheezing Texas lilt and sporting an omnipresent coat of flop sweat that seems to have attracted every fly on set, Visser literally looks like he's rotting in the sun. That Walsh (along with co-star Dan Hedaya as Marty) never joined Jon Goodman, Jon Polito or Steve Buscemi as one of the Coens’ repertory players is both a surprise and a shame.

As cinephiles and film collectors have come to expect, Criterion's new release of Blood Simple provides a deep dive into the inner workings of the notoriously publicity-shy Coen brothers. The standout feature is a lengthy quasi-commentary featuring the brothers and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. The three filmmakers run through nearly the entire film, occasionally rewinding, fast-forwarding and drawing on the screen in the style of sports commentators as they reminisce about various aspects of its development and production. Mostly, the Coens lament their lack of funding while Sonnenfeld scoffs at many of his lighting choices. A more condensed, focused version of this material also appears in an interview of the Coens by author Dave Eggers. There are also interviews with stars McDormand and Walsh, as well as long-time music and sound collaborators Carter Burwell and Skip Lievsay.  Best tidbit: Walsh's insistence that his weekly salary be paid in cash, as he did not trust the Coens' checks to not bounce.


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