Revisiting ‘Blood Simple,’ the Brilliant Debut of the Coen Brothers

Simply the best.
Blood Simple Neo Noir
Circle Films
By  · Published on June 21st, 2016

This past weekend, the Provincetown Film Festival screened a new 4K restoration by Janus Films of the Coen Brothers’ debut feature Blood Simple. In September, this restoration will be released on Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection, but patience is less virtuous when the alternative means a jaunt to Provincetown and the opportunity to see John Waters riding around on an antique bicycle (it is, as it sounds, a delightful sight). But without further ado, as pleasant a distraction as the surroundings and general vibe were and are, to business: the restoration is a very good one and preserves the film’s tactile grit and delicious nastiness. Ethan Coen claimed in introductory remarks at the screening that he and Joel “didn’t know what we were doing” when they made Blood Simple, which may be the case but the film itself betrays very little sign of authorial cluelessness. It’s one of the most accomplished debuts on record, and one which foretold a number of the Coens’ recurring preoccupations in their subsequent thirty-plus year career.

The title comes from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, a description of the addled, over-stressed state induced by dwelling too long in a violent milieu. The Coens’ ostensible protagonist, Ray (John Getz), is the archetypical naïve, nominally butch dickhead film noir and its literary precursors lived to torture. A bartender, Ray is having an affair with his boss’s wife (Frances McDormand), without even really bothering to hide it from his boss (Dan Hedaya). This excessive cockiness sets events in motion that eventually let loose a drawling, Stetsoned agent of chaos (M. Emmett Walsh) upon, well, all of them. The entire film is an extrapolation of the title state of mind, while also physically manifesting a far more graphic style of violence than Hammett’s. The Coens dole out blood the way Hammett did words: economically and with memorable panache. Their influences certainly extend beyond Hammett, but his impact on the Coens seems formative, especially in their earlier years, as Miller’s Crossing tips its hat early and often to Hammett’s The Glass Key.

A great deal of the writing on the Coens over the years, the above included, focuses on their literary influences, but what was particularly striking about this viewing of Blood Simple was Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography. His moves have a tendency to mimic the emotional agitation of a given scene, and his lighting embraces a grimy, earthy murk that externalizes the internal moral turpitude of the characters. Far from the Coens’ reputation for making cold, austere films, Blood Simple is vividly physical. The smell of the blood wafts off the screen. The borderline non sequitur moments in which the film nods explicitly toward the horror genre nod specifically to the Coens’ friend and collaborator Sam Raimi’s approach. It should be clear that these brief moments are in the service of Blood Simple’s repeated emphasis that indulgence in violence is not a thing that be turned on and off instantaneously. The stink of blood lingers long after it’s shed, and the emotional stink of shedding it lingers just as long.

Revisiting Blood Simple after many years – and, indeed, for the first time in its proper form, as the first time I saw it on VHS it had a bunch of awkward replacement music due to rights issues – it’s surprising how often the Coens themselves revisited it, trying new iterations in subsequent, more polished, films. No Country For Old Men, for one prominent example, employs a lot of the same sparingness with dialogue, Southwestern neo-noir setting and compositions, and variations on the idea of a reified agent of chaos. The last recurs quite often, in varying forms, in the Coens’ filmography, from Randall “Tex” Cobb in Raising Arizona to John Goodman in Barton Fink to Peter Stormare in Fargo. Depending on the film, the figure’s level of verbosity may vary, although the murderousness does not. M. Emmett Walsh’s character in Blood Simple narrates the opening minutes of the film in a kind of drowsy, meretricious folksiness, which his later machinations reveal to be abject bullshit. In this regard, he establishes a type the Coens would employ again, and often. Oddly enough Ray, the “good” guy, figures far less prominently in their future work, if at all (the manner in which he exits the film could double as a statement of purpose from the filmmakers). The well-intentioned doofus does not, in this vision of the world, win anything. (Extratextual though it may be, Frances McDormand’s marriage to Joel Coen also ties in with her ultimate role in the film and can serve as a symbol of what kind of characters and actions the filmmakers are more interested in.)

While tempting to continue, there’s a certain point at which analysis has to give way to pure, experiential present tense with a film like Blood Simple, and indeed, with the Coens as artists in general. Their films are substantial, and they are essential figures in American cinema, but ultimately they make wildly entertaining movies. Their style is substance. Their art derives in great part to their films being things you watch with your whole body; there’s no checking your brain at the door or tamping down your fidgeting while your brain processes all the egghead stuff. The Coen brothers – more floral language fails me – fucking own. And it all started with Blood Simple.

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