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The movie Blood Simple hits 35 this month, a multi-layered neo-noir thriller that was the launch pad for Joel and Ethan Coen. From there the Coen Brothers began their career of making the twisted into reality, and finding humor in the dark recesses of human nature. Blood Simple, while not as honed as later efforts such as Fargo (1996) or Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), it still holds the balance of comedy within violent settings which would become synonymous with their work. On the simple basis of a self-made trailer the brothers managed to secure funding for the movie, although stripped back and raw it holds a fractured beauty all of its own.
On the surface the movie looks at the breakdown of relationships: how marriages turn sour, infidelity and the extreme lengths people go to attain what they want. Naturally, it is the Coens and their views of it that takes an unexpected, twisted turn of events, pushing the limits of fantasy through murder. While there may be nothing new to that premise or long told storyline, it is the way in which it is presented and executed that makes Blood Simple such a unique outing.
The movie, set in Texas, stars Joel Coen’s future wife Frances McDormand, in her debut outing. She plays Abby, the bored wife of a bar owner who seeks excitement with another. That other being Ray played by John Getz (Trumbo). Blood Simple opens on a rainy night where Abby and Ray travel by car to a motel for sex, and Abby spills out how terrible her marriage is to justify her affair. The tone is set from the start as the atmospheric surroundings matches the mood perfectly. The plot itself surfaces early, as husband Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) has hired a private detective Lorren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to follow and take pictures of his wife. In the first few scenes of Blood Simple everything is revealed, leaving the clever question to the audience: What happens now?
The most interesting theme is that of escapism. Ray has an affair to escape loneliness, Abby has an affair to escape sadness and Julian is driven by jealousy by his wife’s actions. This is where the movie takes us on a different direction. After seeing the photos, Julian now pays Visser to kill the couple after a failed attempt at kidnapping his wife back. Instead, Visser double-crosses Julian, breaking into Ray’s house, taking Abby’s gun and photographing the sleeping couple. It shows a twisted remorse as Visser refuses to kill the couple, instead returns to Julian with some doctored photos of the supposed dead couple and shoots him instead, planting the gun from Abby to frame her for her husband’s murder. All this sets up Ray unexpectedly as he returns to the bar, kicks the gun on the ground that goes off, and finds the corpse of Julian who he thinks Abby has murdered. This is the start of that added dimension of humor in dire circumstances, and the title of the movie comes into play.
Blood Simple is derived from the craziness a person feels after they commit a murder. Even as Ray is convinced Abby has killed Julian and vice versa, there is still the paranoia that each is capable of going there again. Whereas Ray clumsily cleans up the crime scene, even though at this point he has done nothing wrong but protect his lover. He plans to dispose of Julian’s body only to realise he is still alive. After failed, or rather awkward attempts to finish Julian off, it is clear that Ray lacks the nature or wherewithal of a killer and instead throws dirt onto him so that he can smother under the weight of it. At this point the only one who has come close to committing a murder is Ray, and the audience watches as he now goes even more Blood Simple. The theme running through the movie becomes quite relevant from this point on, things only get worse before they turn catastrophic.
In the Coens’ universe there is a general apathy towards characters, even here where normal people turn evil to make life better for them instead of simply walking away. The film’s success, then, comes from the fact that the three characters of Abby, Ray and Visser never discover fully the abyss they are falling into. That is the genius of Blood Simple. With the final cat and mouse, as Visser shoots Ray and tries to kill Abby, the tension becomes unbearable. As a switch in personas it is Visser who has now turned blood simple by trying to dispose of the couple he was originally hired to kill. If he had killed them all would have been resolved. But Visser believes he killed Julian: Ray did, though he thinks he was only finishing off the job that Abby started.
This triangulation ends as Abby manages to shoot Visser believing he was her husband, until she realises afterward, and now she moves into the zone of blood simple with no chance if the escape she originally yearned for. The movie as a whole does not venture too far or offer too much, in a small narrative it is at times complicated even with little character involvement. However, after thirty-five years it remains a brilliant piece of cinematic art which has led to a further seventeen films from the Cohen’s right up to last years compelling The Ballad of Buster Scruggs