by Andrew Lewicky
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“The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year, something can all go wrong. But go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, and watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it all mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That’s the theory anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here… you’re on your own.”
Somewhere between curiosity and classic lies Blood Simple, the feature debut of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Blood Simple, edited and digitally restored in re-release, amply foreshadows the Coen brothers’ later talent for breathing life into characters who inhabit society’s margins (Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski). Paradoxically, the film is devoid of empathy. As the Coens march their expertly-crafted characters toward doom, they detail every step with a wholly dispassionate eye, creating a jolting synergy that both thrills and disturbs.
Blood Simple begins with an affair between Abby (Frances McDormand) and a bartender in her husband’s honky-tonk, Ray (John Getz). As Abby and Ray talk furtively in a darkened car, as if afraid of being overheard, we sense they are drawn together not by choice but by circumstance. That human beings are driven by circumstance, rather than free will, becomes one of the film’s predominant themes.
Another theme is depravity. Abby’s husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) has hired a private detective to follow her. The detective (rendered irresistibly detestable by M. Emmet Walsh) presents Marty with photos of Abby and Ray in bed. Jealous Marty offers to pay $10,000 to kill both of them. The detective accepts the job with entirely calculated reluctance.
As Abby and Ray flounder in their new relationship like two wounded birds, the detective doctors photos of them to make it seem as though they are dead. Presenting these photos to Marty, the detective claims the job is done. Marty hands over the cash. The detective kills Marty, figuring he’s doing one killing for the price of two, then leaves behind the murder weapon—Abby’s handgun, lifted from her purse—as a red herring for the cops to find.
Instead, Ray finds the gun. Looking for money, Ray breaks into the bar and finds Marty’s body. Thinking Abby killed him, Ray decides to hide the evidence. In a grotesque parody of comedy, Ray makes every mistake imaginable, leaving fingerprints, blood, and even items of his own clothing behind. Later, as Ray prepares to bury Marty, he gets another shock: Marty is still alive.
Tormented by conscience, Ray is unable to finish the job—until Marty tries to shoot him with Abby’s pistol. Ray ends up burying Marty, still alive, in a Texas field. Ray returns to Abby, deeply distraught, and hands over her pistol, saying, You left this behind. She, of course, has no idea what he’s talking about. He assumes her confusion is an act and leaves.
The detective, meanwhile, discovers that one of his doctored murder photos is missing (Marty, not quite wily enough, kept one as insurance). Returning to Marty’s bar to look for the photo, he sees Marty’s body is gone. The detective assumes Ray and Abby have the missing murder photo and are preparing to blackmail him. Naturally, he decides he must kill them.
The term “blood simple” refers to the confused, shocked mindset a person enters after committing murder. In their feature debut, the Coens argue that humans in crisis innately choose the worst possible option, as if deliberately seeking doom. From this viewpoint, everything that happens in Blood Simple makes perfect sense. Even so, as fellow humans, we can’t help hoping someone will break this rule and make a genuine choice.
The Coens, however, seem wholly unaffected by the plights of their characters. Focused only on virtuoso camera moves and storytelling devices, the brothers burn away the hopes and dreams of Ray, Abby, and Marty like children burning ants with a magnifying glass—a glimpse, perhaps, of an alternate cinematic path the Coens thankfully did not follow.
Andrew Lewicky is a Los Angeles-Based writer and story analyst.
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