Blood Simple (1985)
Written by Joel & Ethan Coen
Directed by Joel Coen
Nothing in Blood Simple feels unnecessary. Each frame, each character action, every twist in the plot feels like it clicks right into place to tell a classic neo-noir tale. The Coens direct with confidence that they know every character and the perfect flow of the story. The title comes from Dashiell Hammet’s novel Red Harvest to describe the mindset immersed in violence and how it becomes addled with fear & terror. That perfectly describes this quartet of souls as they make bad choices, communicate poorly, and allow paranoia to take over their psyche. The result is a movie dripping with noir, reminiscent of old classics but paving its own country-fried way.
Ray has been involved with Abby (Frances McDormand), married to Marty (Dan Hedaya), Ray’s boss at a little dive bar outside of Austin, Texas. Marty has hired Lorren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh), a private eye to follow Abby and bring him proof of the infidelity. Visser is a massive slimeball and seems to revel in Marty’s misery as he learns the affair’s sordid details. Marty begins simmering about the debacle, trying to decide what to do next, and finally settles on paying Visser to kill them both. The private eye delivers a photo of the couple being shot up and bleeding in bed, but there’s more going on than what it seems. Blood Simple unfolds with twists and what could be considered cliches, but the Coens handle them with such a deft touch that it infuses these tropes with new life.
Blood Simple clocks in at just over 90 minutes, but the Coens use every minute to their advantage, yet never allow the story to feel rushed. It helps that they keep the focuses tightly on four characters, rotating the narrative to focus just enough on each one. Through perfectly framed moments, we learn everything we need to know about each one. There is a strong aesthetic sense here though intentionally controlled so that the movie doesn’t devolve into pastiche.
The Coens have studied the noir genre and gotten down to the very root elements that make something a noir. It’s not anachronistic dialogue or a style of music. They fundamentally understand that noir is about exploring the darkest aspects of humanity through betrayal, mistrust, and violence. They subvert the femme fatale trope brilliantly by having Abby just be a woman trying to get out of a bad relationship. She doesn’t want to kill anyone, yet she’s made really dumb choices instead of staying focused and getting out clean. Everyone here is making the worst decisions, and if they had simply stopped and contemplated what they were doing, they likely would have avoided all the tragedy that unfolds.
There is one genuinely irredeemable character in the mix, though, and he’s the most interesting of the lot, Visser. M. Emmett Walsh plays the detective brilliantly, always showing his crafty mind at work, never letting up on the sleaze oozing out of him. He’s the most cartoonishly Texan character, wearing his ten-gallon hat, speaking in a slow oily drawl. Some key character moments communicate a great deal to the audience about Visser. He’s first glimpsed in his Volkswagen Beetle, watching Abby and Ray from the shadows, a common M.O. throughout the movie. Visser is not interested in direct confrontation or getting involved in messy situations.
He’s also a moral degenerate, licking his lips over the photos of the couple mid-coitus, seemingly getting off more on seeing the humiliation and pain in Marty’s eyes. Visser mocks the man. When the two meet at Lover’s Lane type of location, we see Visser chatting up a teenage girl. He tells Marty he was rolling a cigarette, and the girl thought it was marijuana and came over to chat. The implication is that Visser would have negotiated sex from this underage girl. He goes on to do even worse things as the film progresses, culminating in an iconic scene in an apartment building in the middle of the night. In his final moments, Visser cackles at how muddled and confused everything has become, the single party whom survives never understand what exactly happened in their life.
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