- Movie Rating -

Blood Simple. (1985)

| February 15, 1985

Blood Simple is a brilliant example of pure filmmaking. For every inch of its running time it takes the shape of a film noir nightmare, the kind of film filled with scummy characters, dirty deeds, good people who find themselves doing the unthinkable and an ending that is built on screenwriting ingenuity.  The film is famous for it’s striking visual style (with brilliant camerawork by a young Barry Sonnenfeld) but what isn’t discussed nearly enough is the screenplay, which never allows the characters to completely understand what is happening from one moment to the next.  We in the audience are privy to everything that is happening but the characters are kept in the dark so that when two people are having an argument they aren’t on the same wave length.  In lesser hands this might be confusing, but the narrative structure is constructed in a way that the misinformation becomes a nice running joke.

The story is simple, but never simple minded.  It involves a saloon owner named Marty who hires a private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and her lover, a saloon employee named Ray (John Getz).  Visser instructs Marty to take a fishing trip out of town and get himself noticed in order to establish a clean alibi.  When Visser comes back he lies to Marty, telling him that the job has been done and shows him doctored photographs of the bodies.  Marty pays Visser for the job and Visser responds by shooting Marty in the chest.  He’s got his money but he can’t have a witness, can he?

That would seem simple enough but what follows is an escalation of murder, double-crosses, disposal of a dead body, a surprise from that dead body, and a scene between two people in separate rooms in which one person is mistaken about the identity of the other.  It is difficult to discuss large chunks of Blood Simple without giving away some of the film’s best surprises  Suffice to say that nothing is ever what it seems, the dead don’t always stay dead and blood is far more difficult to clean up than you might think.

The key to the film is the lock-step storytelling.  Character’s motives are guided often by what they do not know.  At one point Visser steals Abby’s gun from her purse and later, when Ray discovers Marty’s dead body with Abby’s pistol on the scene he assumes that Abby has killed him.  That leads to a grisly scene in which Ray attempts to get rid of the body by doing something that he may never have done in other circumstances.  When Ray admits to Abby what he has done, she has no idea what he is talking about.  Neither have any idea about the hitman and when he comes to kill them, through a series of clever set-ups, they still have no idea even when the man enters their apartment.

The characters in the movie are not stock film characters.  This is really a four-character play in which all four players find themselves trapped in this whirlwind of betrayal and murder.  Each acts on instinct, none is especially bright, they all make stupid mistakes which prove fatal for some.

The casting is perfect.  Dan Hedaya, with that great bloodhound face just bearly masking a fountain of rage, plays Marty the husband as a man who has been betrayed but doesn’t exactly take great joy in how he is choosing to resolve it.  He doesn’t like the detective he has hired, but the man is efficient and probably the only man he could find who was slimy enough to do that job.  Visser is played brilliantly by the great veteran M. Emmett Walsh as a giggling hitman who doesn’t take the job too seriously but knows how to double cross his client and take the kitty for himself.

What you take with you from Blood Simple is the visual style, the Coens use all the tricks of the film noir genre and add moments we don’t expect.  I love that way the Coen brothers play with visual shots almost as an homage to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. There are high angle shots then low angle shots that look up at the actors.  There are point of view shots, the most memorable being from the perspective of a dog who runs toward Marty as he attacks his wife in her front yard.  There is a curious moment early on when the camera moves down the bar toward two talking participants and the camera moves upward to get over a drunk who is passed out.  There is a high ceiling shot when Visser enters the bathroom to kill Abby and we get a perspective of the entire room.  There are closeups of certain rooms followed by wide shots that allow us to see that the room is much larger than we had initially thought.

The movie plays with our perceptions and our expectations so that, while the story plays out in a very straightforward manner, elements pop up that take us completely off-guard.  Joel and Ethan Coen would take this style into their other features.  They are masters as playing with our expectations and adding characters and dialogue that are always written one level up from what we expect – when they write a character they always add an extra dimension.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1985) View IMDB Filed in: Drama