Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #411
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: September 7, 1984 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $3,851,855
Running Time: 99 minutes
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (uncredited)
Producers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (uncredited)
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Special Effects: Paul R. Smith
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Score: Carter Burwell
Editing: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jaynes), Don Wiegmann
Studios: River Road Productions, Foxton Entertainment
Distributors: Circle Films, USA Films
Stars: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams, Deborah Neumann, Raquel Gavia, Van Brooks, Señor Marco, William Creamer, Loren Bivens, Bob McAdams, Shannon Sedwick, Nancy Finger, Holly Hunter (voice)
Suggested Audio Candy
 Carter Burwell “Blood Simple”
 Carter Burwell “Chain Gang”
Joel and Ethan Coen truly are from another planet. Over the past thirty years they have maintained a level of consistency which no other modern-day film-makers could even consider achieving and, of the nearly twenty motion pictures they have helmed, not a single one could be accused of being ineffectual. They have worked with many of the finest actors of our time along the way and always manage to get the very best out of their cast. During that period, films such as Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, Raising Arizona, and The Big Lebowski, have underlined their superiority effortlessly and proved without a shadow of a doubt that the unflappable brothers possess the complete package. Between numerous Oscar nods and universal critical acclaim there have also been what some may regard as lulls to form. I am not in that camp.
Case in point is their 2008 film Burn After Reading. Following up the indisputably brilliant No Country For Old Men was no minor feat and many cinema-goers and critics alike were left somewhat underwhelmed by the result. In many ways, it reminded me of The Big Lebowski. That film arrived shortly after Fargo and consequently received a not altogether favorable response upon release. Yet, years later, and taken out of chronological context, it is regarded as one of the finest films of the nineties and deservedly so. Burn After Reading is no different; a superb black comedy which holds humongous appeal for repeat viewing, it succeeds for a number of reasons, none more so than the fact that they didn’t endeavor to trump themselves and instead treated their next project as business as usual.
Then we have the movies considered the weakest entries in their back catalogue. The Hudsucker Proxy and their remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 classic The Ladykillers were both met with a barrage of indifference and, once again, both are excellent films in their own right. I have often heard it stated that a bad Coen Brothers picture is still a great picture and I would be inclined to agree with this viewpoint. The pair simply never fail. When they’re bad they’re good and, when they’re firing on all pistons, they’re simply off the chart. Blood Simple. (punctuation intentional) was their first effort, while the boys were still fresh out of film school, and in the history of debuts it would rank effortlessly within the uppermost echelons.
Long before the movie went into production, they produced a two-minute teaser on the advice of buddy Sam Raimi, featuring Bruce Campbell in a role which would ultimately belong to Dan Hedaya. The brothers went door-to-door to potential investors in an attempt to raise the $750,000 they still required to make it happen and, a year later, had procured all the funds they needed. They took it to numerous major L.A. studios, all of which passed up on their noir thriller and eventually it premiered at the New York Film Festival and later the Toronto Film Festival, securing nationwide distribution in the process. The rest truly is cinematic history in the making.
Inspired by a term coined by Dashiell Hammett during his 1929 novel Red Harvest, the term “blood simple” depicts the woozy mindset of a person exposed to sustained acts of brutality. It tells the tale of Texan bar owner Julian Marty (Hedaya), who is suspicious that his wife Abby (Joel’s long-time spouse Frances McDormand) is engaging in coitus with one of his bar staff, Ray (John Getz) and hires private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to shed further light on her infidelity. This proves to be a dick move by Julian as Visser has his own motivation and the once contained situation spirals out of control as our pawns are moved about with the precision of chess pieces, culminating in shock revelations and unbearably ratcheted tension.
Aside from the typical Coen Brothers sucker punch, a trademark of theirs, is the infamous “disposal” scene which contains absolutely no dialogue other than the accompanying car radio. The brothers hang this out for well over ten minutes and it would rank in my top ten cinematic moments as it feels akin to having two size elevens pressed down on your chest, increasingly removing the wind from your sails, and leaving you literally gasping for air by the scene’s conclusion. They have proven themselves time and time again for knowing exactly how to alleviate their audience of that last thread of stability, wrenching it away to leave us entirely destitute.
Then, while we’re still reeling, they manage to locate our funny bones and proceed to give them a delicate tickle. I will always take my comedy black wherever possible and they are the masters of lowering our guards with moments of hilarity, only to crank up the terror shortly afterwards, leaving us dazed, confused, and in awe. There is no Dude in Blood Simple. and neither is there a single ferret as this is a far blacker piece of fiction than The Big Lebowski and, in many ways, a precursor to their later exploits with No Country For Old Men. It’s all about fine detail, two paranoid protagonists who slowly become embroiled in something truly mortifying, and they’re as much in the know as we are once the net begins to close in.
McDormand and Getz are both superb in their roles as the want away lovers. The former, in particular, excels and it is easy to assume why she was provided with such a pivotal role in Fargo, along with Joel’s heart, on this evidence. She is absolutely immaculate throughout, never more so than when you consider that this was her first acting role, and I would imagine the appreciation is shared as she has since gone on to become one of the most naturally endowed students of film on the planet. Hedaya is brilliant without exception, while Walsh gives a career best turn as the dubious private dick. Everything is precision, a trend which has continued as the Coens have repeatedly hit pay dirt ever since.
While the players are uniformly excellent, there is far more here than a few perfectly delivered lines of dialogue and Blood Simple. is never better than when totally muted. It is during these protracted moments of quietude that their roaming lens becomes the uncredited lead and Carter Burwell’s sublime score offers notable support. Their framing is exquisite, the whole thing looks and feels frighteningly authentic, plus they douse the screen with distressingly burning light sources. Whether bullet holes or car lamps; they ensure that it’s safer in the darkness and we already know how unsecure these shelters can be. Just as we begin to feel impervious, course light floods our senses and it’s akin to a botched prison escape as they use their lens as a spotlight of sorts. I have rarely felt so completely foiled as I did when soaking this in for the first time. Hell, the second and third also.
This is the kind of appraisal whereby I prefer to remain largely ambiguous. Overt synopsis will invariably harm the overall experience as the bliss in ignorance will undoubtedly afford them the opportunity to restrict your lungs of precious oxygen as they did mine back in 1984. If infidelity is your bag then it may well prompt you to think again. The best way to approach Blood Simple. is to surrender yourself over to the sturdy hands of the Coens and allow yourself to simply drink it in. You never know if it will be your final tipple and it truly tastes like heaven, should you willingly swig back its pungent brilliance. The Coens abide. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ they’re out there. The Coen Brothers. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Dread Factor: 5/5
For the Dread-Heads: Rarely have I felt so asphyxiated as I did for thirteen minutes on that old Texan dirt road. To state that the brothers are masters of suspense is akin to suspecting O.J. Simpson of hiding something. No other film-makers on the circuit can make the wide open feel so insular and, as we trundles towards the heart stopping denouement, we forget how that last frayed nerve actually felt. As is always the case with these two, brutal violence punctuates the serenity to maximum effect.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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