Blood Simple (1984)

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*. Fargo, Texas. Getting down with the rubes and criminal low-lifes. How the Coens must despise these people, to have obsessed over them for so long.
*. It seems to me that pretty much everything good about the Coen brothers’ work is prefigured here, from the film’s complicated pulp storyline to its neo-noir look. Later movies, particularly Fargo, would repeat individual scenes and shots almost verbatim.
*. I had reservations about Fargo, and they relate to something Pauline Kael flagged about this movie: “The one real novelty in the conception is that the audience has a God’s-eye view of who is doing what to whom, while the characters have a blinkered view and, misinterpreting what they see, sometimes take totally inexpedient action. Blood Simple gets almost all its limited charge from sticking to this device, which gives the movie the pattern of farce — it works best when someone misinterprets who the enemy is but has the right response anyway.”
*. It’s with that reference to the God’s-eye view that we again have the sense of the Coens looking down on these people, the same thing that got my back up about Fargo. Like it or not, this is very much part of their world view.

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*. I think this is what’s really going on with regard to the reaction critics like Kael and David Kehr had to the characters: that is, that the film isn’t interested in them. Ray and Abby have zero chemistry and aren’t very interesting roles for John Getz and a woefully underutilized Frances McDormand to play, but more than that you get feeling that the Coens just couldn’t imagine anything interesting about them. Freaks like Marty and Visser are at least fun to watch, and the lesson learned for Fargo was to make even the good or “normal” characters into the same kind of rustic grotesques.
*. Here’s another point I’ll flag from Kael’s harsh review: “I don’t quite understand the press’s enthusiasm for these two young, well-educated Americans, the sons of college-professor parents, who want to make the most commercial kind of Hollywood movies but to do it more economically and with more freedom outside the industry. What’s the glory of making films outside the industry if they’re Hollywood films at heart, or, worse than that — Hollywood by-product? Joel and Ethan Coen may be entrepreneurial heroes, but they’re not moviemaker heroes.”
*. Expressing the same point a little differently, here’s Kehr: “the movie remains mired in a smart-alecky film-school sensibility. Showing no detectable investment in the characters, the Coens seem to signal to their hip urban audience that they share their giggling contempt for the pulpy conceits on display.”
*. One can feel the critical exasperation, but in 1984 they didn’t have a word yet for what the Coens were doing, because it was still kind of new. It would take a while before we became acquainted with the “hip urban” or hipster aesthetic: educated, ironic, superior, and derivative. I sound condemning (and to some extent I am), but I’m not saying that there can’t be important or valuable hipster art. I just think it’s a label that helps to place and identify the Coens properly.

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*. Sure I was impressed at the time, and still am. For a first (commercial) film it’s remarkably polished in all departments. No, the plot (in true noir fashion) doesn’t add up perfectly. I’m still unsure of what Visser was up to at the end. The pacing is poor. And some of it is too clever for its own good (it makes no sense at all that the blanket Ray tosses on the back seat would soak through so completely, bleeding up, with blood that must have dried hours earlier). But for a low-budget genre flick from the mid-80s (not a golden age for film), it holds up well.
*. As for the Coens . . . they’ve made better movies than this, but only a couple, and even they weren’t a lot better despite having far greater resources behind them. This is worrying, as Blood Simple is now over thirty years old. It feels like we’ve been waiting a long time for something more from the Coens, but time and again their movies seem to bump against a hard ceiling, the outlines of which were already apparent here.

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