Blood, yes. Simple? No, not particularly.
Every once in a while, a new filmmaker will come along and do something extremely irritating, such as make a really good film on their very first outing. People like this just make everyone else look and feel bad, and they probably don't even feel guilty about it, the self-important bastards.
The guilty parties in this instance are the Coen brothers, now best known for Fargo and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Back then, in the mid-eighties, they were best known for not being known to anyone but each other. So they took a little advice from their filmmaking buddy Sam Raimi, raised 1.2 million bucks, and shot this extremely economical film noir thriller. The title is cribbed from a quote by detective novelist Raymond Chandler, referring to a surfacing of primal stupidity after the commission of a murder. And if no one completely degenerates into a blithering idiot here, the Coens nevertheless demonstrate, with a healthy dose of art-house flair, that a killing is not only hard to get away with, but is just plain hard to deal with.
Blood Simple is a near-perfect example of what good planning can get you. One might not think you could get a terribly complex plot with only about four characters in the mix, and one would be about as wrong as TV psychic Criswell was when he predicted that Satan would rule the earth starting in the late '70s. Not the typical thriller, Blood Simple can't really be truthfully classified as a mystery. But for a few scattered counterexamples, the plot machinations are always known to the audience. Not mystery, but misunderstanding. Our poor characters-none of whom, due to the circumstances that unfold, are ever really totally sympathetic or unsympathetic-are the ones in the dark, all misled by the incompleteness of the picture they have to go on. If there's one key motivator to this story, it's mistrust, whether warranted or not: either mistrust misplaced, or mistrust doled out in unfortunately insufficient quantities. The setup is simple enough: Ray is having an affair with Abby, wife of his admittedly anal boss Marty. Marty gets wicked pissed and decides to pay a private eye to bump off the both of them, and things proceed to go as badly as possible for everyone from that point on.
While a Coen film isn't all that hard to spot nowadays, Blood Simple stands out as the most distinct entry in their canon. Perhaps it's the lack of any hayseed characters with jaw-stretching vocabulary. Or to broaden the category, perhaps it's the near-total lack of any humor at all. Even The Man Who Wasn't There, arguably their bleakest film, has dashes of tomfoolery throughout. Compared to subsequent entries in the more-or-less "serious" half of their body of work, Blood Simple is also far less restrained in terms of direction. Camera moves and editorial style tend to be a bit more show-offy here-not a criticism, merely an observation. The Raimi influence, which would carry over into their subsequent film, Raising Arizona, is pretty obvious. But equally noticeable is the cold remoteness that fills in the space between the more flamboyant pieces. Everything, from Carter Burwell's minimalist score, to Abby's wide, empty apartment, to the flat open stretches of Texas landscape, convey an atmosphere clocking in at a couple degrees too cool for comfort. Forget everything you've learned from Schwartzaneggar and Stallone; the spilling of blood isn't fun here, nor is it clean, easy, or free of emotional consequence. As we witness the sun come up on a day bereft not only of the life of the actually deceased, it's very relieving to remember it's only a movie, and not our own lives facing such a hollow future.
None of this is to say that Blood Simple isn't a damn enjoyable watch. If the violence isn't playful, it also isn't gory, nor as downright disturbing as, say, Heavenly Creatures. Seeing both the events and characters slowly unravel is a quiet and nervous little spectacle that demands our attention throughout. We watch not in the hopes of finding out "who done it," but to see if anyone involved will manage to figure out not only "who done it," but "what," in fact, "they done." And lest it seem that I'm slighting the performers in favor of lavishly praising the directors, I'll just chime in to say that all the cast members did an exemplary job, and Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, and M. Emmett Walsh have all firmly cemented their status as talented character actors. One only wonders what happened to John Getz, though, as he performs just as well as his fellows, only to remain largely unknown.
The best favor a film can do its audience is to fail to be predictable, and in that category Blood Simple gets an "A." Even if we always know what's happening, we never know what the hell's going to happen next.
Plus, that shot of Frances McDormand falling into a subsequent scene has to be seen to be believed.
-review by Matt Murray