Blood Simple, the directorial/writing debut of the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, is a sticky, sweaty, clammy picture about deceit and confusion, set in the heart of Texas. Marty (Dan Hedaya) runs a bar, and is the boss of Ray (John Getz) and Meurice (Samm-Art Williams). Distrustful of his wife Abby (Frances McDormand), Dan has hired private investigator Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to look into what she does with her time. It transpires that Abby is sleeping with Ray, so Marty hires Loren to kill them both whilst he is away on a fishing trip. What with this being a Coen film, things don’t necessarily go to plan, but it is the direction the events took, and the motives involved that I found both interesting and compelling.
Tonally, this is probably most similar to Fargo or No Country For Old Men amongst the Coens’ oeuvre. There’s not a great deal of humour surrounding the violence and devious plotting going on, and the location of Texas adds a great deal to the setting, just as Minnesota did for Fargo and Texas again for No Country. I found this lack of comedy to be a bit jarring – there are some moments of Coen-esque quirkiness certainly, and a couple of jokes in the script, but for the most part this is played dead seriously. The brothers can do serious very well, but personally I prefer their lighter efforts.
Had I not known this was a Coen film (and had it not starred Frances McDormand) then I don’t think I’d have immediately associated it with them. If anything, the structure of the narrative felt far too linear and ordinary, with the exception of perhaps missing an opening and closing scene most directors would have felt obliged to leave in. We’re fed the plot in dribs and drabs, discovering who each of the characters is and their relationships to one another just a couple of minutes after we need to.
Though he isn’t necessarily amongst the lead trio of the film, I would class Walsh’s performance as the greatest in the movie. His Visser is the human embodiment of a lizard, a slimy, oily gumshoe with a malicious streak and a rasping laugh that still haunts my dreams. He plays the part so well that I can’t believe I haven’t come across the actor in much else. For my sins I only really know him from Wild Wild West (he was the train driver). Can anyone recommend any of his other work?
I loved the musical choices in the film, especially Ray mopping up blood to the sounds of The Four Tops’ It’s the Same Old Song, an almost Tarantino-like retro song choice. The camerawork too was at times inspired; the marriage of lighting and camera movement revealing Visser’s cigarette lighter on a table, and the oppressive close shots inside the bar intensifying the humid atmosphere.
I can’t imagine this film cost very much to make – the biggest set pieces involve a car and a shovel, and a gun, knife and a window – yet it’s easily as gripping as many other big budget blockbusters. It reminded me of the likes of Glengarry Glen Ross or Reservoir Dogs, neither one which involves a lot of spectacle, but they have great characters and dialogue, which really is in my opinion more important. I’d have liked a last shot of Meurice – one of the coolest characters in film, check out his bar-top shuffle – but other than that the ending was pretty well contained and executed. Whilst by no means the Coens’ best, this is still definitely worth a watch.
Choose film 8/10