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Blood Simple   A+

USA Films / Universal Studios Home Video

Year Released: 1985 (Director's Cut: 2000)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams, Deborah Neumann.

Review by Rob Vaux

Somewhere deep down, in places I don't like to talk about, the Coen brothers really scare me. Director Joel and his producer brother Ethan make films that laugh at the most depraved concepts, bringing fun and joy to wanton violence and twisted characters. Corporate suicides, protracted gang wars, Steve Buscemi in a wood chipper...they can bring the humor out of any situation. In the process, they've created some of the most unique and original moves of the past two decades. Which is why they're so scary. And if you need any further convincing, their first film, Blood Simple, has been digitally remastered and re-released in theaters this summer.

Those familiar with the Coens' now-seminal Fargo may find some similarities here. Blood Simple does for rural Texas what the later film did for Minnesota. The film opens in the rustic plains, where a honky-tonk bar owner named Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) has just discovered that his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand, a long way from Marge Gunderson), has been sleeping with one of his bartenders (John Getz). It's no wonder that she's fooling around: Marty looks and acts like he crawled out of some prehistoric scum pit just before buying the bar. He's the jealous type, too, and when he finds out what's going on, he hires a P.I. named Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) -- a proto-human even further down the evolutionary scale than he is -- to kill the happy couple.

Visser, however, has other ideas. Why should he kill two people when he can get the same amount of money by shooting one? He doctors up some convincing photos of the pair, shows them to Marty as evidence that the deed is done, and then blows him away after getting paid. He promptly plants evidence implicating Abby and her beau, and vanishes into the Texas plains. From there, the plot threads expand at a bewildering rate as false assumptions, misunderstandings and more violence build upon each other with devastating results. We the privileged audience get a front seat to the whole thing.

Blood Simple shouldn't be an easy film to watch. The story is full of deceit and double crosses, the characters are all sleazy and self-serving, and we find out more about the human body's ability to void blood than we ever wanted to know. But the Coens have infused so much energy and style into their gloomy film that it never feels grim or despairing. The script (written by the two of them) is full of clever twists and turns, yet keeps everything clear enough for the audience to understand. The plot is dark, but saturated with black humor timed just right to avoid the tastelessness that could sink it. Joel Coen's direction uses an endless array of visual tricks to punctuate the action and to keep us off balance enough to let the film's wit work. The result is a masterpiece of mood and suspense, with a style unmistakably its own.

The actors are mostly along for the ride, although this is more due to the particulars of the plot than any shortcomings on their part. The characters are absorbed into the unnerving circumstances surrounding them, and the dictates of the story force them to react more than act. The exception is Walsh's Visser, would-be mastermind and spiritual cousin to Fargo's Jerry Lundegard. His inept schemings form a solid anchor for the entire affair, and Walsh makes him compulsively engaging even at his most repugnant.

Blood Simple is essentially a retake on classic film noir, and certain elements have been unmistakably lifted from other movies. But the Coens have infused so much of their considerable imagination into the project, that no one can accuse them of being unoriginal. A good filmmaker can make grim material watchable, but it takes a great one (or two) to make it fun. I never thought I could laugh at a man being buried alive before I saw this film. Blood Simple isn't for everyone, of course, but if you want to see a pair of truly twisted geniuses at work, you need look no farther. Just try not to think about what you're giggling at.

Review published 07.07.2000.

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