05 September 2013

Coen Countdown: Blood Simple.

It has been three long years since the Coen brothers have released a motion picture, a gap of inactivity as long as any in their thirty year career. Thankfully that will all end this December with the arrival of their sixteenth feature, Inside Llewyn Davis. Inspired by a recent conversation on Letterboxd, I have decided to spend the fall working my way chronologically through all of the Coens' feature films and maybe writing something up here on the old soapbox if the mood strikes me.

A man discovers his wife is having an affair so he hires a thug to bump them off. However, the thug has other plans, so he kills the husband instead, takes the money, and runs.

Over the course of their three decade career, the Coen brothers have often dabbled in the genre forms of classical Hollywood, from the screwball comedy of The Hudsucker Proxy to the gangster world of Miller's Crossing. The brothers' debut feature Blood Simple is most often described as a neo-noir and the film certainly shares elements with the shady crime films of the 1940s and 50s, as well as with the genre's forebearers, pulp novels. (Blood Simple's title in fact is taken directly from the work of author Dashiell Hammett.) But the film actually plays out more like a horror movie than anything else and is the Coens' most sustained work within that environment. Half a decade later, their film Barton Fink takes a sharp left turn into horror as its protagonist begins his journey into a literalized hell, but Blood Simple, with its low budget aesthetic and pulse-pounding tension, lives more fully within the genre.

The horror elements in Blood Simple range from a brief nod to early Coen-collaborator Sam Raimi's Evil Dead tracking shot to the excrutiatingly tense finale, which sees a relentless monster first killing John Getz's Ray and then terrorizing the adulterous Abby, played wonderfully by Frances McDormand. Of course, being the Coens the murderous villain is not a boogeyman like the masked Michael Myers or an unstoppable killing machine like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator. Instead it is the bloated, sweaty body of M. Emmet Walsh as a slimy private investigator named Loren. No bother, the fear is equally palpable.

Also scattered throughout the picture are jolts of unexpected action, akin to a creature jumping out of the shadows and screaming "boo!". In Blood Simple however, it is the innocuous elements of day-to-day existence that come screaming into the frame, pulling the characters (and us) out of our own reveries and back to cold, cruel reality. Twice in the film this alarm comes from the ubiquitous telephone, first as a latent dialtone and later as a jarring, shrill ring. But the biggest jolt in the film's ninety minutes comes when Ray and Abby are standing at Ray's front door, both confused and frightened, when out of the blue a newspaper comes sailing into the frame, slamming against the screen and providing more thrills than a thousand makeshift ghosts.

The film obsessively forces our attention towards mundane objects like telephones and newspapers. A handful of scenes begin with shots of lazily turning ceiling fans, staring down upon the action like bored gods. In fact, a ceiling fan is the only witness to Loren's shooting of Abby's husband Marty. Meanwhile the last shot of the movie is Loren's point of view as he ponders the oddness of a dripping pipe on his way to gunshot-inflicted oblivion. The Coens also populate their film with very specific objects that highlight their famed attention to detail. Be it the glass of Alka Seltzer that inadvertantly tells us all we need to know about Marty's character, to the Zippo lighter inscribed with Loren's name and the words "Man of the Year" that nod to the character's opening monologue, the Coens know exactly what they want and more importantly, what we need.

If we were to boil down the overarching theme of the Coens oeuvre into a single, simplified maxim it could very well be a preoccupation with idiots getting in over their heads. While that description could sum up nearly all of their films, nowhere is it better exemplified than in Blood Simple. At no point in the film does any character have a complete grasp on what has transpired. The lovesick Ray thinks that Abby shot Marty when in fact it was Loren. The film concludes with Abby running from Loren, all the while thinking he is Marty, who is long since dead. She even shoots him under the impression that he is her vengeful husband. This makes a dying Loren laugh. It made me laugh too.

One sign of truly great artists comes from revisiting their earliest work and discovering that all of the elements that make them worthwhile were there on display from the very beginning. This is readily apparent throughout Blood Simple. It extends from the brothers' recurring themes to their nuanced dialogue in this singular screenplay as well as to their visual wit and elegantly framed compositions. If there is any mission statement in Blood Simple, something that signals the Coen brothers' arrival in cinema, it may very well be the tracking shot that runs the length of Marty's bar and takes the time to climb over the drunk passed out in the middle of it. Or perhaps it's the face of the kind stranger that informs Ray, the man who earlier laughed at Marty as the latter got caught on a dead end street, that his headlights are still on.

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