Until 2007 when they unchained No Country for Old Men on unwitting audiences, Blood Simple was the black sheep of the Coen Brothers family. Their second feature Raising Arizona is, on the surface, its diametric opposite, a harried, maniacal fracas of disheveled lunacy and Southwestern loneliness. That latter film has, more or less, paved the way for many of the Coen Brothers’ more famous features, inaugurating their reputation as the pied pipers of modern artful screwball. But Arizona shares two central components with its predecessor despite Blood Simple’s reputation as the wild card in their canon. Tones aside, both films are mordant, fiendishly cunning grasps of dour, melancholic tragedy, both comedies-of-loneliness. And both are acid-washed images of people in need of an escape hatch. The sheer surfeit of mood aside, Blood Simple frequently feels like a premonition of the Coen Brothers’ entire career. Considering Blood Simple reveals the crestfallen image of a destitute US and stunted, criminally miscommunicating people that skulks, almost subterraneanly, within the notionally-chipper heart of many of their later films.
Blood Simple is a brutally clipped tale – like a fable told in whispers – that refracts multiple layers of moral uncertainty and questionable perspective. The Coens do not merely wring out full-bodied tension on an astonishingly trim budget. They also hang-on questions of ethical decay as well as an extraordinary awareness for how men lose their sanity acting on behalf of what they believe women want without ever actually bothering to ask the women in the first place. Essentially a four-character play unfolding in the most withdrawn corners of Texas – where everything is bigger, including the empty space and the need to fill it with anything to retain one’s sanity – the principal figures of this 90 minute screenplay are Marty (Dan Hedaya), a bar owner, his wife Abby (Frances McDormand), Marty’s bartender Ray (John Getz), who Abby is sleeping with, and detective Visser (M Emmet Walsh), a comically lugubrious remapping of the cinematic gumshoe. When Visser successfully proves to Marty that Abby is cheating on him, the story – the ambiance, really – is set in motion when Marty asks him to do something a little more diabolical to the pair.
In their debut, the Coen Brothers necromance the long-done spirit of film noir for a film that is near-silently venomous in its self-deprecating glimmers of delicious hate. It is also a cutting, acerbic slasher film with no definitive killer and even less of an axis of good and evil, a bottomless abyss of pure-quandary where no definitive ethical plane exists to break the agony with any sense of emotional or logical assurance. A rough sketch of extreme seclusion, every shot mercilessly interferes with our semblance of safety. All the more so, the images suggest that the people out to get you seem so suddenly less important than your own internally-constricting mind. The loneliest images – most frequently, a character pondering, dark images creeping into the back of their head as no one is around to modulate or police their thoughts – ruminate that prisons are also mental. Within each mind wages a dark and possibly unwinnable battle for righteousness. Even if none of these three men don’t kill the others in the end, we wonder if they haven’t already doomed themselves.
Although Blood Simple updates classical film noirs as well as the slasher boon of the early ‘80s, this aura of existential curiosity darkens the template of those slasher films considerably. No corporeal hunter is necessary when people are committed to undoing themselves, not merely with obvious ill deeds and moral missteps but forms of everyday public mistrial and inaccurate judgment that overflow and curdle potential misdemeanors into un-abating moral felonies. In this tale of three confused men helpless against their own self-conviction and one not-so-helpless woman, someone is always failing to read another person’s movements or empathetically listen to another’s state of mind.
Even Ray, despite his designated “hunk” status as the hero who is apparently “better” for Abby than the anti-social, brutish Marty, seems essentially disinterested in talking to Abby. By the midpoint, we’re already deeply skeptical of the assumption that Ray offers anything more for Abby in the way of compassion than the more overtly villainous Marty and Visser do. Tellingly, the famous “demon camera” the Coens lifted from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, on which Joel served as an assistant and friend to Sam Raimi, follows a regular Joe at one point. It’s as though normative masculinity and patriarchal emotional manipulation is the more quotidian, and thus more insidious, form of the infamous raping tree from Raimi’s film. And when the camera sits on Ray’s side at one point, moving at his hip while focusing on the “problem-solving” shovel he grasps, he’s imaged as a stalker, not all that dissimilar to Jason Vorhees carrying a machete on the warpath to not only deflower but outright exsanguinate a college coed.
Few films grasp this aura of the malevolent-quotidian like Blood Simple. Many of the most incisive moments are entirely subcutaneous, like when Ray’s fellow bartender, African-American, rings up an old Motown classic on the jukebox and the racialized discomforts of the white Southern clientele are emblazoned in a fleeting, momentary shot of their faces as he steps back over the bar back to his post. He punctures their country façade and myopic, white-washed perspective with a simple song. They probably feel Maurice, the bartender, doesn’t belong in their hometown. But this nihilistic film ponders with grave implication: with so many people more interested in assuming truths about other people than listening to them, does anybody belong in this seemingly-collapsed limbo? The white men are so focused on staring at Maurice, or using and taking ownership of Abby, that they can’t see what they’re doing to themselves.
And the craft! Blood Simple is an extraordinary visual musing on the solitude and seclusion of self, a transmission from the dark side that doubles as a disclosure of human nastiness and misfortune and triples as a stunning calling card of formal talent. The desolate spaces ring with sinister intent and rhyme with our own inner fear, and the camera dismembers even these spaces by queasily slithering through them. But Blood Simple puts the camerawork to more pointed and cutting use than some of the Coen’s showboating later films, suggesting an anxiety of the soul rather than merely a confluence of directorly skill. Expecting stillness, the camera not only peruses as if searching for answers but teeters as if doubting or weighing in on the decisions of the characters.
As with its camera, Blood Simple also mobilizes Sam Raimi’s comic instability for more provocative, lower-humming purposes, deriving ironic interest out of the gaps between our knowledge of the characters and their own images of themselves. While the material is dead-serious, the Coens also find themselves drawn to the absurdities of sometimes-literally-grave situations. They draw pressure out of risible notions and conversely twist the tight-lipped and the tense into the harebrained and the slightly loopy. Although they’ve drawn from more openly comic veins in the thirty four years since the film’s release, Blood Simple remains perhaps their most diabolically clever work.