Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Coens, part I: What I know about is Texas, and down here, you're on your own


Though not without a few rankling problems with its plot and staging, Blood Simple is almost too good to be a pair of inexperienced brothers' first time at bat.

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
With Frances McDormand (Abby), John Getz (Ray), Samm Art-Williams (Meurice), Dan Hedaya (Marty), and M. Emmett Walsh (Loren Visser)

Spoiler alert: moderate, considering it's also 31 years old
Note: this review is based on the very slightly re-edited "director's cut" of Blood Simple released in 2001

As far as these things go, they came out of nowhere.  In the early 1980s, a pair of brothers—a certain Joel and Ethan Coen—emerged from suburban Minnesota, and ventured into the wider world.  In the process of getting out, each man apparently decided to go to college twice.  After graduating from Bard College, whatever that is (it sounds made up), Ethan went to Princeton (isn't he fancy), and Joel—presumably, the more precognitive of the two—drifted over to NYU (also fancy), where he studied film, and, by stroke of fortune, made the acquaintance of a young would-be director named Sam Raimi.  After completing his studies, Joel got a foothold in the business as a production assistant on various industrial shorts; but he made his bones in commercial, narrative cinema as one of the assistant editors on a little picture (like, genuinely little, because this time I'm not trying to be the least ironic) called The Evil Dead.  But little or not, it wound up etching Raimi's name forever in the annals of splatter horror; at the same time it served to solidify Joel and Raimi's burgeoning friendship.  And, in the meantime, Joel and Ethan had developed their own screenplay.  It was another little picture.  They called it Blood Simple.

The Raimi connection isn't only interesting trivia.  It was Raimi who nudged the brothers into committing their talents to Blood Simple, and it was Raimi who came up with the idea of having them follow his fundraising playbook, and make a fake trailer for the film they wanted to create, thereby offering a tangible product for each of their marks to actually watch.  These potential investors were mainly sourced from donors to the Zionist charity Hadassah; and thus the Coens went their way around the country, but mostly Minnesota, sitting in people's living rooms and offices, and showing them what they had to show.  Though precisely why the Coens thought that support for Israel might coincide closely with the desire to fund a couple of nice Jewish boys who wanted to make movies about murderous goy hicks clearly remains something of an open question.

In the end, however, the Coens' hustle paid off, in precisely the way it usually doesn't: eventually, they got the million and a half dollars they needed.  This was thanks partly to the generosity of a large number of baffled Minnesotan Zionists; but it was thanks mostly to Daniel Bacaner, one of their first investors, and the man who served as their executive producer, helping put together almost a million dollars worth of funding on their behalf all by himself.  (Unfortunately, Bacaner's career as a Hollywood big-shot lasted just two films: this one, and a work of ephemeral 80s horror that went by the yawn-inspiring title of Scared Stiff.)

The process still took upwards of a year; the film began shooting only in late 1982, utilizing various locations in rural Texas to imbue it with the languid complexion of America's southern underbelly.  Constrained by a Director's Guild rule that seems more pointless and stupid every year, Joel took the director's credit (because he was the oldest, says Joel), while Ethan took on the role of "producer."  Such would be their way for the next twenty years, even though they shared equally between them most of the major filmmaking tasks: the writing, the direction, the production, and even the editing, too (under their dumb joint pseudonym of "Roderick Jaynes").

Anyway, Blood Simple nonetheless spent one more year in post-production, before it was finally released to general audiences, in the January of 1985.  And, as it made its way across America, the most it ever attained in terms of a return on its backers' investment was nothing but the barest profitability; yet what it secured for the Coens themselves was vastly more important than cash-in-hand, for  Blood Simple was soon met with a truly unusual burst of critical acclaim.  Frankly, it is not at all too much to say that the critics' response to the Coens' debut feature made their career together possible; indeed, if Blood Simple had not captured the attention of the critical establishment, one suspects the brothers might well have faded away.  At the very least, they'd have had a much harder time of it, probably separating in the process.  (And God alone knows what films they might have made apart!)  But, with these rave reviews clutched tightly in their pretentious fists, they would instead go on to become, jointly, one of the most celebrated (and most recognizable) creative forces in the history of American cinema.

And those raves weren't even unfounded, either, for Blood Simple is in fact pretty Goddamned excellent.  It's a film that, as the name ironically implies, begins simple indeed.  But the simple path is soon lost, as each misstep upon misstep muddles the track.  It becomes a labyrinth of sin and confusion—crimes committed to cover up other crimes, till ultimately nearly the whole principal cast is dead.  Our heroes, if we must have heroes, are a pair of Texas proles, Abby and Ray.  But Abby is married to Marty.  She regrets that decision now, seeking solace in Ray's arms.  Ray works at the bar Marty owns, and it is clear that Abby and Ray have known each other a long time, and have perhaps always felt this attraction.  Either way, tonight is the night they act upon their feelings, but not nearly discreetly enough, for Marty has had his suspicions for as long as Abby has had her regrets, and has tasked a slimy P.I. to follow them.  When this P.I., one Loren Visser, returns with proof of their infidelity, Marty fumes; but soon he expands their contract, asking Loren to murder his wife and her lover.  Loren all-too-quickly agrees—and maybe that's because, from the very moment Marty broaches the subject, Loren's already planning on faking the two murders, taking the money anyway, and killing Marty rather than his intended victims, while framing Abby or Ray or both, just for good measure.

The plan, then, is simple—even elegant.  It might've ended right there, except for two things.  The first is that Loren leaves incriminating evidence behind him.  The second is that, on the night of the murder, Ray has made his way to Marty's bar, determined to get the back-pay he's still owed, and once Ray surveys the scene—Marty with a leaking hole in his chest, and Abby's stolen gun still warm on the floor—he jumps to the natural conclusion that Abby did kill Marty, after all, for whatever reasons she might have had to do so.  It's time to dispose of that body, then, although some things are easier said than done; but once Ray has returned from this grim task he finds himself at least as flummoxed by Abby herself, who faintly terrifies him when she acts as if nothing has happened at all.  In the meantime, Loren has determined to tie up the lose ends he's left hanging, which, in practice, means carrying out the dual assassination he'd been hired to perform in the first place.

So: Blood Simple, it should be said, is not quite one of the all-time great thrillers, though it is a suitably great one; and yet I could be convinced, instead, that it is one of the one of the all-time great noirs.  The distinction is real in Blood Simple.  To a degree, one mode actually opposes the other, though this opposition is, maybe, the most intriguing thing there is about the film.

The thrills it poses are, to be sure, absolutely real; within the film's svelte 97-minute runtime, the Coens cook up two whole sequences of well-appointed suspense that, all by themselves, would still earn Blood Simple its enduring reputation.  Both near-silent, and both nail-biting, one of them serves as the film's climax; and it is, to be frank, the lesser of the two, though it is also the more inventive, putting our last woman standing into an unwinnable situation right before shifting the whole scene, then shifting it right back again, as bullets, then a fist, smash through the only barrier between our seemingly-implacable villain and the only decent human being still left.  (Though decency, in this case, only ever really means "total ignorance of the plot.")

But, you know, even if it is the lesser of the two, it still reveals the Coens' already-marvelous ability to make a fucking movie.  They wring tension and edge-of-your seat interest out of what seems, initially, like the sparest genre riff you could imagine, comprised of the most spartan elements you could put together and still pull a thriller sequence from: two open windows; one knife; two guns; one ledge; and (at least to start with) two pairs of functioning human hands.  Yet the Coens stage this scene with so much cleverness—indeed, so much moment-by-moment tactical brilliance on Abby's part—that it winds up not just altogether unforgettable, but even almost good enough that you'll forgive the preposterous premise that underlies it.  (Namely, that a fat, sweaty smoker like Loren can sprint from one building to another so quickly that, honestly, he might as well have teleported from his sniper's perch across the street to just outside her door.)

But then there's that other one, and the film absolutely turns upon its real centerpiece—Ray's long, herculean struggle to dispose of Marty's body.  It begins as a nightmare, and then just keeps going: an act of kindness that is immediately perverted into something grotesque, and almost inutterably evil.  The key, of course, is that this corpse, hauled around through the backroads of Texas, still has a spurt or two of life left in his ruined body; and the best thrills in the whole thriller, naturally enough, are driven by a revenant's refusal to simply die.

It's the centerpiece, however, that smashes the noir directly into the thriller pretensions, apparently just to see how it all plays out.  It's where Ray's well-intentioned efforts to merely cover up a murder becomes a murder in its own right—worse even than Loren's greedy gunshot, in its way, for it's been rendered all the more wicked and cruel for its perpetrator's reluctance to simply strike the lethal blow.  Ray's reluctance we can understand; but still, as objective viewers, we are gifted with the perspective to fully comprehend just how warped his better angels have now become.

Marty's unholy burial is the synecdoche for the whole film: its grandest, most operatic gesture, its most fun, its most nerve-wracking, its most upsetting, all at once, a logical consequence of disconnected decisions made by flawed men becoming connected in one tragic moment.  Blood Simple lacks, for the most part, the cruel whimsy that makes a Coen Bros. movie a capital-lettered "Coen Bros. Movie"; there are only intermittent reminders of the joint personality that would soon emerge from the pair.  (Although such reminders are here: Loren's meandering opening narration, for example, or that uncanny moment where Ray, on his way back from Marty's newly-dug grave, finds his nerves absolutely ravaged by a passing motorist, via the inscrutabilities of headlight code.)

Nevertheless, the brothers' abiding idea that men and women are adrift in a sea of chaos, and never quite captains of their fate, is already here.  Blood Simple remains one of the fullest expressions of their unsentimental philosophy, not to mention one of the least self-amused.  The short and brutish lives of Stupid Criminals would serve as the Coens' go-to subject throughout their whole career, obviously; but it would be years before they took up the same kind of material and allowed it to exist in the same utterly nasty register as it does here.  (That title, by the way—jacked from Dashiell Hammett—though it may suggest the way that simple mistakes can unwind the best plans, was actually coined to mean "traumatized into idiocy by violence."  And that's a notion that's definitely on full display here.)

Regardless, an utterly nasty register is where Blood Simple truly earns its claim to the kind of greatness that's sufficient to overcome its biggest, and not very-well-concealed, flaw—that is, Ray and Abby's frustrating inability to have a conversation that lasts more than two minutes, and the overwritten way that the Coens coerce our two leads into dancing around the two simple words, "Marty's dead", thereby enforcing their condescending, artificial stupidity upon the both of them, and literally right up until the very last line of the whole film.  (It can be reclaimed, of course, by referring to the insecurities and paranoia which fester in Ray's lover's heart.  But even then it's at least a bit of a reach—an abstract exercise in character rather than the tight thriller plotting that one might easily, and strongly, prefer.)

Nevertheless, that mood could scarcely be more expertly-handled.  The rest of screenplay exists in a far more realistic fog of war, wherein our dumb men and scarcely-smarter woman can make their endless, but understandable, mistakes of both assumption and omission.  Meanwhile, the Coens' direction is attuned to the intolerable unpleasantness of humid Texas nights, and all the jealousies and furies that can drive the inhabitants of a smalltown hell like this one right into madness.  Its score, by Carter Burwell in his first of so many collaborations with the Coens, is exactingly perfect, a mixture of electronic dissonance and a central solo piano piece that must rank among the most haunting pieces of original music of the decade; and it's Burwell's score that sets Blood Simple's ghostly mood even before the images themselves do, by the way its electronic subliminalities sync themselves to the slice of wiper blades, while we sit in the back of Ray's car and listen to the two would-be lovers, silhouetted against oncoming headlights, making the decision that soon shall seal their fates.  Yet, above everything, there is still Barry Sonnenfeld's extraordinary cinematography.  It's a gritty, ugly thing, and it must be one the best-mounted color noirs anyone's ever bothered to make.

Again, we're back to the field where Marty meets his end: the texture of the soil on his flailing body, the way carlights carve out hideous man-shaped figures against the night, and more than anything the precise framing of the literalized hellscape of the furrows in the field, a backdrop of black and gray alternating rows extending endlessly into a void, so stylized it almost becomes optical art.  You won't find anything much like it in color cinema, and it can stand next to the kaleidoscopic tunnels of The Third Man for their sepulchral beauty.  (And, not for nothing, it sets up the film's steeliest gesture toward humor—if you can call Blood Simple's cosmic brand of schadenfreude "humor"—when the harsh light of day reveals the most obvious set of tire tracks leading to Marty's shallow grave, right next to a farmhouse that Ray, in his panic and in the dark, apparently never noticed was standing forty yards away.)

But the whole film benefits from Sonnenfeld's engulfing blacks and rusty colors; even in sunlight, the grubby cheap filmstock captures the grubby Southern Gothic of Texas and its inhabitants every inch as well as the not-too-naturalistic performances do.  Sure, everyone knows M. Emmett Walsh is at his venal best as Loren, sliding effortlessly from the P.I.'s good ol' boy bluster to the flinty, pragmatic evil his fish tales and corpulence hide; and Dan Hedaya hardly needs praising as the angry, inconsistently-murderous cuckold.  But behold Baby Frances McDormand (we can presume that Mr. Frances McDormand, Joel Coen, probably did), as Abby's ideally hard-nosed faux femme fatale—albeit one maybe noticeably too young for the role.  And, when it comes to John Getz, let's go all the way against grain: it might be the best performance in the film.  He has the hardest part, after all, playing a convincing yet compelling idiot, and there's just something strangely believable in his face and his eyes, hinting at the slow grind of the gears inside Ray's skull as he tries to brutely push his way through a mystery that, honestly, should not be this hard for him to penetrate.

It's the clash of this mostly-credible human stupidity with the Coens' high-test thriller mechanics that wind up giving Blood Simple its utterly peculiar personality.  To a noticeable degree, the human stupidity actively works against the thriller, on its generic merits: thrillers, to my mind, work best when the characters are smarter than the audience, and when the nonsense their plots make so necessary doesn't also need to be so completely grounded in such thoroughgoing human frailty as Ray's and Marty's and Loren's.  But stupidity and frailty (not to even mention turpitude) are what grant that noir half of Blood Simple its own toxic power.  It's a film about how affection can be perverted, and trust subverted, and how awful things can still be done, even when you didn't start out intending to cause any harm at all.  And the noir half, it should not go unremarked, is damned near perfect.

Score:  8/10

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