Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Directors----"Blood Simple" (1984)

I know that the blogging has been extremely spotty lately. Part of it is that, following the holiday award rush, I probably needed a bit of a break from the movie world. Along with that, I've been buried under some obligations at the office, along with preparing for a wedding and a move.

So, from now until early April, things are still going to be a bit sporadic.

But I did want to start off this month by posting my new series--The Directors.

As I try to broaden my cinematic horizons, I want to take on a project that allows me to catch up with the work of some directors who I find intriguing. I have a list of names that should get me through this first year and my plan is to post one entry a week, on Sunday nights. This allows me not only to see a number of classic films that I have until now neglected to view, but it also provides greater perspective on how certain filmmakers have matured over the years, what common themes they tackle and what they've added to cinema.

First up are The Coen Brothers. That was basically a no-brainer. Each year it seems they have a new film out that enthralls me and shoots directly to my "best of" list. In just the past few years they've given us the perfect "No Country For Old Men," the wonderfully daffy "Burn After Reading," the brilliant "A Serious Man" and this year's Oscar contender "True Grit." That's not to mention classics like "Raising Arizona," "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski."

The Coens are actually a great start for this project, as they've zig-zagged across so many different genres since their 1984 debut that I can't imagine this project feeling boring. So we're going to start today with that 1984 film, the dark and delicious film noir "Blood Simple."

Blood Simple

Murder is never as easy it seems.

During my time as a reporter, I had the opportunity to cover several murder trials and, through my colleagues, hear stories of other grisly cases. One thing that has always left me shaking my head is the thought that murderers always think they can get away with it, that nothing has been left to chance and they're going to be two steps ahead of everyone else.

Of course, it never happens that way. Getting rid of bodies is hard work. Murder is rarely a one-person job and conspiracies easily lead to paranoia, which leads to betrayal. The randomness of life ensures that there is always going to be an unforeseen difficulty to trip up the perpetrator and cast the light of suspicion on them.

That thought occurred to me several times during "Blood Simple," Joel and Ethan Coens pitch-black debut. The title can be read several ways, but I kept coming back to two: an ironic commentary on how murder is never simple, or a description of the way violent crime renders a perfectly normal person totally incompetent.

Certainly Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) thinks he's about to commit the perfect crime. He suspects his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him with his bartender Ray (John Gertz). When a private investigator (a wonderfully sleazy M. Emmett Walsh) confirms Julian's suspicions, the bar owner decides to hire the PI for another job--kill his wife and her lover.

That's where things get complicated. To say anything about how the plot unfolds would ruin the film's nasty twists and turns, which develops with all the precision of a great thriller and the unpredictability of the best black comedies. There's a betrayal, another murder, the gruesome work of disposing a body. As Roger Ebert observed, there always seems to be one more body than necessary and throughout most of the movie no one has a clear idea of who is killing whom or why.

So many of the marks that define the Coens' later work are already on display with this debut. Their love for language--which is in full bloom in their sophomore feature "Raising Arizona"--is evident from the first frame, in which the PI drawls on off-screen to set the stage and warn us that perfect schemes don't always unfold according to plan. The full first sequence is simply dialogue in a car between Abby and Ray, with the audience eavesdropping from the backseat as we stare at the backs of their heads. In a simple three minute sequence, we learn that Abby is escaping her husband and has an attraction to Ray, but we learn this without anyone explicitly coming out to say it.

The Coens have a love for plots that spiral out of their protagonists' control, and the great twist here is how nobody seems to know what's going on. The plot starts off so simple and streamlined and, by the end, three characters are in a room, all of them with different ideas as to what's been going on. Their wrapped up in a situation where people are dying and everyone thinks they know exactly how things have unfolded--but none of them are right. It's to the brothers' credit that, this early in their careers, they had enough confidence over the narrative to keep the characters in the dark while still being able to keep the audience completely in the loop--the plot may become quite labyrinthine, but it's never confusing.

The themes that later come into play in much of the Coens' work--particularly life's randomness and the the futility of trying to control it--run throughout "Blood Simple," as does their skill at staging set pieces that are suspenseful, horrifying and darkly humorous all at once. A protracted sequence involving a body that will not disappear is fantastically played, as is the famous end set piece, involving a shootout with a villain who manages to be in two rooms at once--it sounds bizarre, and it is, but by the time this character is in this predicament, it all makes perfect sense.

If I have one complaint, it's that this film feels a little too well set in the real world. The Coens' films balance humor and suspense so well because they exist in a totally separate universe than the one we live in--one created solely from books and movies the brothers loved growing up. "Blood Simple's" style definitely carries the noir influences you'd expect, but--aside from Walsh's character--the actors aren't given much to do to craft well-rounded characters. They work well enough to carry the plot, but I think the brothers hadn't yet developed their knack for creating the characters who fit so perfectly in their wonderfully realized worlds. There's not much to like about Abby and Ray, except that Julian is such an obviously bad man. Walsh's PI, with his long drawl and Western getup, is really the only character who sticks in your head after the film's over.

That's not to say the performances are bad. McDormand, Hedaya and Gertz all do what they can with the roles, and the film moves so quickly that I was never really bored. More than anything, this is a fascinating exercise in style, with the Coens' crafting an intricate and tightly-wound thriller that slowly boils to its nerve-wracking climax. I'm just curious to see what the film would be like had the Coens made it later in their career.

Nothing much more to say about "Blood Simple" right now. I dug it quite a bit, and I'm sure I'll revisit it down the road. But I'm sure there's going to be more to write about when I take the time to discuss "Raising Arizona" next weekend.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.