“In Texas, you’re on your own,” the husky southern drawl of M. Emmet Walsh tells us in narration against a dark backdrop of solitary images, the opening scenes of the film Blood Simple. You can’t trust anyone, not even your homicidal partner in crime, who just happens to be the smartest idiot around. Ethan and Joel Coen, the brother-directors of the film, allow us to probe deeper into the complex psyches of simple people. The two later employed the same technique in their films Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). Before all this came Blood Simple, the brothers’ 1984 debut.
The newly released director’s cut, shown at Images last week, has been promoted as digitally enhanced and tastefully restored. “The boring things have been taken out, and other things have been added,” the narrator tells in his mocking intro to the re-release. He must be right. Sixteen years later the film still stands on its own. It encapsulates all that has come to typify the Coen brothers’ style: engaging narrative and a perfect blend of grim violence with moments of sublime human behavior. The product is far from simple.
This exhilarating Southern noir thriller tells the story of a jealous Texas saloon owner, Marty (Dan Hedaya), who hires a private detective to kill his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand) and her lover, Ray (John Getz). The quirkiness of the players is what adds substance to any Coen brothers’ film, and Blood Simple offers up an eclectic bunch of skewed individuals.
The Coens are particularly skilled caricaturists when it comes to the grotesque. Abby swings back and forth between two characters, at times playing the charming wife, an innocent lass who is happy living in her own oblivion, aloof from the primitive violence of men. At the same time she delivers a wonderful kick in the groin to Marty when he attempts his first double murder (in broad daylight) of an unwitting duo. Marty’s many mood swings portray him as both a pathetic loser of a husband, yet at the same time a violent, brooding madman. We get to see all the lunacy and savagery beneath Ray, as he drinks himself into a freakish frenzy after having buried someone alive. A nervous wreck, he flees from the scene of the crime.
The film examines Marty’s initial obsession with his wife’s affair, gradually coming to focus on his diabolical, bloodthirsty search for revenge. As he tries to come to grips with his savage thoughts, Marty comes to realize that he is too pathetic to carry out the murders himself. He hires a private detective, Visser, played by M. Emmet Walsh, who offhandedly volunteers to do the dirty work.
Walsh steals every scene. His perpetual grin lights up the screen and his oafish yet sinister character allows him to seduce the audience with sharp injections of creepy humor. He is a cold-blooded killer, yet at the same time infinitely likeable. “Don’t go simple on me and do something stupid,” Visser says to Marty, drooling senselessly, his grin widening to a gruesome smile. Sitting with Marty in the dim lighting of the “Neon Boots Bar,” Visser’s every moronic gesture is further distorted by the fluorescent glow of purple kitsch.
This is more than a typical shoot-’em-up. In one scene, Visser shoots through a wall into a darkened room, the bullet holes creating visually arresting rays of light. The Coen brothers have wonderful visual flair for the shocking and the beautiful, and successfully mix the two to create what is in fact a sheer tale of gripping horror. Visually, this is a complex puzzle of crisply edited frames that allows one scene to flow smoothly into the other.
The elements of the plot work like clockwork. By the middle of the film, we are impatiently holding onto the story line, aching for the plot to unfold, agonizing over the outcome, vowing to outsmart Joel and Ethan. But the brothers outdo us. The plot unfolds quickly, only to double back at the end and outmaneuver us with a stunning checkmate of a finale.