Over the course of nearly 30 years, the Coen Brothers have acquired a reputation for style, quirkiness and an absolutely heroic refusal to limit themselves either to a specific genre or a specific approach to filmmaking.In any given year, the Coens are just as likely to produce a screwball comedy like Burn After Reading as they a bleakly existential western like No Country For Old Men. Originally released in 1984 and then re-released as a shorter and pacier director’s cut in 1998, Joel Coen’s directorial debut Blood Simplecontains many of the characteristics that we have come to associate with Coen Brothers films including a sense of whimsical insubstantiality.
Clearly inspired by such hardboiled crime novels as Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, Blood Simple takes acollection of film noir clichés, drives them out of the city and deposits them in a crummy bar at the tail end of Texas. Stripped of their tilted fedoras and artfully crumpled raincoats, the clichés valiantly attempt to start new lives but eventually find themselves sliding back into old familiar habits.
Much like the noir films and fiction that inspired it, Blood Simple describes a web of betrayal and slaughter that begins with a single solitary sin. In a shabby motelon the edge of town, the seemingly innocent Abby (Frances McDormand) has sex with Ray (John Getz) a seemingly sensitive bartender who works for her husband. Presented with proof of Abby’s infidelity by a seemingly charming private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh), Abby’s seemingly competent husband Marty (Dan Hedeya) decides that the lovers must die. Unfortunately for everyone involved, what should have been a simple murder turns into a chaotic farce as everyone tries to be clever but no one actually succeeds.
Blood Simple is first and foremost a hugely entertaining film. Slow moving at times, the film’s narrative trundles forward from one incandescent moment of beauty to the next: At one point, it is the way that light floods into a darkened room through freshly-made bullet holes. At another point, it is the way that a bartender tucks his tracksuit into his trainers so that people can see when he does a little dance on top of the bar. Sometimes it’s the way in which a murderous detective feigns outrage when a teenager assumes that his rollup is a joint. Other times it’s the way a camera creeps along the bar only to roll right over a passed-out drunk and continue along its way as though nothing unusual had happened. Full of deep shadows and oppressively bright lights, Blood Simple revisits the classic beats of 1940s film noir with a degree of technical sophistication beyond the wildest dreams of Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder andNicholas Ray.
The problem is that while Blood Simple may contain some beautiful moments and some genuinely heart-stopping sequences, it never feels like anything more than an elaborate genre pastiche in which traditional characters are forced into traditional situations that play out in an entirely conventional manner. This lack of real depth or interiority is particularly evident with regards to the characters who, despite being colourful and beautifully performed, never feel like anything more substantial than narrative ballast wedged into the seat of directorial vehicle with the accelerator glued to the floor.
Blood Simple is built out of old materials; its characters are genre archetypes, its plot is a genre template and all of its moods and structures will be familiar to anyone who has seen films like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Scarlet Street or Double Indemnity. While the technical panache and stylistic brilliance of Coen and his cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld may elevate this film above there merely generic, Blood Simple remains at heart a very safe pastiche of a very safe genre.
Somewhat disappointingly, this re-release is based on MGM’s 2008 barebones US release of the director’s cut meaning that we are deprived the sensationally snarky introduction and commentary that accompanied the original US DVD release. This is a thin film and choosing not to fatten it up with a few tasty extras is a real missed opportunity.