Saturday, February 27, 2010

Movie Review: Blood Simple (1984) - 4 stars

Blood Simple is a delicious piece of neo-noir from the Coen brothers. It was the first film they ever made together, and it could very well be their best. The filmmaking duo has proven to be experts at throwing ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and this film is built upon that foundation. All of the characters in this film are smart, and they know what they want. But even the smartest of people have trouble cleaning up blood.

The film takes place in rural Texas, someplace outside of Corpus Christi. This rural, isolated setting is something the Coens have repeated with many of their films, and for good reason. "What I know about is Texas, an' down here, you're on your own," is part of a M. Emmet Walsh voice-over that begins the film (another technique used throughout the brothers' career), and it lets us know that people are responsible for their own problems where he comes from. When it comes to paying the bills and buying the groceries, that's one thing, but when you're dealing with the problems that these characters are faced with, it becomes a whole different mindset entirely.

Abby (Frances McDormand, in her impressive screen debut) is an unhappy woman. She's married to Marty (Dan Hedaya), a rich bar manager who sums up his feelings for his wife by buying her a revolver on their anniversary. One night, in a vicious rainstorm, Abby hitches a ride home from Ray (John Getz), one of Marty's employees. Abby thinks they are being followed, so Ray pulls over. Against his better judgment, he tells Abby that he has feelings for her, and they end up spending the night together.

A jealous Marty, fully aware of his wife's adulterous behavior, meets with his private investigator (Walsh) to arrange the murder of his wife and her lover. He offers the man $10,000 to do the job, and the sleazy detective has no problem accepting the deal. He insists that Marty goes away for a couple of days so he has a secure alibi in his back pocket. When Marty returns home, the detective presents him with a photo of Abby and Ray in bed with several bullet holes through their bodies, and what seems like the end is actually just the beginning to this web of betrayal, deception, and misunderstandings.

The Coens have never been shy about implementing dark humor into their films, and Blood Simple is, in many ways, the benchmark for creating sick and twisted humor. Following in Hitchcock's footsteps, the Coens make every effort to fill in the audience on something the characters are unaware of. We are usually several steps ahead of the main characters, and this storytelling method doesn't only create the tension, but the humor as well. There are many moments where you will be struggling to catch your breath from a combination of suspense and wit. I wouldn't call myself a fan of dark humor, but in this film, it's irresistible.

The duo has also proven to be masters of the casting process, and this film is no different. As the movie's most flamboyant player, Walsh gives one of his best performances, and creates one of the most memorable Coen characters in the process. He is indeed the source of most of the humor, and his scenes with Hedaya are among the film's highlights. Walsh's outrageous, repulsive personality makes a juicy contrast to the grave, mentally incompetent Marty. Watching these two experts throw punches back and forth is a pure delight.

Getz and McDormand are equally impressive as the frightened lovers. The Coens, especially in their trademark voice-overs, have shown an affinity for actors with deep, recognizable voices, and Getz is one of those actors. His character is very laid-back and reserved, and his voice is consequently monotone throughout most of the film, but his delivery goes a long way towards creating a noteworthy characterization.

Another one of the film's highlights is Carter Burwell's hypnotic score. Burwell has become a longtime collaborator with the Coens, and they don't try to be flashy with their music. "I don't generally find myself listening to the music of a film," Burwell has stated, "unless there is something awfully wrong with it." Well, there is nothing wrong with this brilliant Burwell score, and Blood Simple is such an atmospheric experience that his music unwittingly becomes a character within itself.

Rarely is a filmmaker's debut considered one of their masterworks, but Blood Simple is assuredly some of the finest work the Coens have ever committed to film. As a story, the film is tightly-wound. It is constantly taut (running briskly under 100 minutes), and the twists are well-conceived. But it is the technical expertise of the filmmakers that keep you wanting more. From the harsh lighting contrasts, to the sweat on the characters' foreheads that is basically another member of the cast, Blood Simple is an atmospheric thriller that I'll be glad to revisit year after year.

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