In constructing a recent Top 10 list of modern directorial debuts, I found myself reflecting on what a first film can mean for the rest of a director’s oeuvre. There are numerous instances of currently active filmmakers, particularly those that could be considered auteurs, whose early work establishes them as unique and powerful cinematic voice – think “Bottle Rocket,” “Hard Eight,” “Badlands”… the list goes on. One prominent example that I hadn’t yet seen was the Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Blood Simple.”
Initially premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1984, “Blood Simple” was met with immediate critical praise, winning Best Director at the Independent Spirit Awards and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It went on to make over $4 million from a $1.5 million budget, which was scraped together by shooting a two-minute trailer over a weekend and shopping it around to businessmen in the directors’ hometown. Even early on, the brothers’ dark, stylistic tendencies were apparent, and the film never attracted the favor of a major production company. As a result, they quickly learned the value of rigorous planning and the benefits of unbridled creative control; these traits are still a hallmark of their work to this day.
The plot of “Blood Simple” follows a small cast of characters in small-town Texas. Dan Hedaya plays Julian Marty, a bar owner who believes his wife (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him. He hires M. Emmet Walsh’s private detective to investigate and, after confirming his suspicions, offers $10,000 to have her killed. In what has become typical Coen fashion, the crime goes awry in the most bleakly comic ways, twisting and turning until nobody involved has any idea of the true situation. The picture opens with a voiceover from Walsh, who pronounces what could well be the thesis of the Coens’ entire filmography: “I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, the President of the United States, or Man of the Year; something can all go wrong.” This film confidently declares the start of a time-tested formula where the directors inject chaos into standard tropes to create blackly comic genre musings.
Throughout the movie, it’s easy to spot the genesis of many other familiar Coen patterns. Thematically, misanthropy and the futility of free will feature strongly, along with an imposing and seemingly unstoppable antagonistic force – the finale plays like a scene from a “Friday the 13th” movie and hints at what would later attract the pair to the Anton Chigurh character in “No Country for Old Men.” There are also several visual motifs that turn up time and time again: approaching headlights, a predilection for silhouetted figures, and lots of shots from low angles. Despite their inexperience at the time, the Coens operate with brazen matter-of-factness and flair characteristic of a much more veteran talent.
It’s not just a successful inauguration for the Coens, either, as several of their frequent collaborators also started out on “Blood Simple.” Following what was her first professional acting role, Frances McDormand struck up a long-term professional relationship with both brothers, not to mention a romantic one with the elder; any partnership that can claim Marge Gunderson as a byproduct is one to be celebrated. Newcomer Carter Burwell provides the musical accompaniment and channels an eeriness worthy of “Twin Peaks,” six years before Lynch was on the small screen. His soundtrack also boasts the utterly inspired choice of The Four Tops’ “It’s The Same Old Song” in a few pivotal scenes. Before turning to directing his own films, Barry Sonnenfeld was the cinematographer on several Coen films. Here he shows off in shadows, paying homage to the noir edge that the story riffs on with memorable images like beams of dusty air starkly illuminated by bullet holes, as if the projectiles that caused them were actually made of light. A shot of headlights shining across a tilled field is one of many highlights in the masterfully tense and wordless centerpiece of the film.
A good amount of credit for the success of “Blood Simple” is owed to the confluence of such gifted artists, but the inborn talents of its first-time directors cannot be overstated. The qualities fortified and honed through the circumstances of its production are the same qualities that place it as a criminally underwatched entry in their filmography, and allow that filmography to continually tempt perfection.
7 September 1984
Crime, Neo-noir, Thriller
Joel and Ethan Coen
Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Frances McDormand, John Getz