The Coen brothers' first film, the Gothic noir Blood Simple, which premiered at Sundance, remains one of the 1980s' most visually stunning debuts, with sprightly black humor and mordant wit.
Joel Coen wrote the script with Ethan Coen, and together they produced the film for a little over $1 million. The movie interjects visual shrewdness and playful moodiness that compensate for a familiar plot of a cuckolded husband (Dan Hedaya), who hires a seedy private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). Occasionally, the Coens abandon discipline and coherence and let stylishness overwhelm, a problem that will recur in their work.
The Coens are masters of props, and their angling on graphic details transform this variation on the love triangle into a bizarre nightmare. A thriller with noirish fatalism and style, Blood Simple lacks strong characterization. The protagonists are cardboard creations, manipulated as the other props, but the film demonstrated a strong authorial vision, with showy aestheticism that makes the story bleaker and colder. The Coens concocted a plot rich in surprise and coincidence–with roots in the crime stories of James M. Cain, Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson. The premise is unremarkable–the reduced core of hard-boiled novels–but the film, as David Denby suggested, offers an ironic sense of destiny: Life is smarter and more treacherous than we are; nothing turns out the way it is planned.
From the opening shot of a rain-spattered windshield through a tense, artfully composed finale, Blood Simple was soaked with suspense. Barry Sonnenfeld's dazzling camera, which consciously distorts space, becomes an active participant in the game, lending the film's last scene, in which the wife and detective fight for their lives, bizarre humor. Throughout, there are plenty of fancy moves, as when the camera slowly glides along a bar, then lifts up over a napping drunk.
Blood Simple introduced the Coens' wry, sardonic treatment of violence. Stylized, the cartoon-like violence was choreographed to produce visual rather than emotional effect, aiming to both scare and stun the viewers with gory pulp elements. In the film's most talked-about scene, the husband's corpse is buried alive by the lover. In the next scene, a memorable long take shows the lover's car totally isolated in Texas' vast, flat fields. Nonetheless, some criticism of classic noir was implied in the film. Frances McDormand, who later married Joel and went on to star in several of their films, was an ordinary-looking actress cast as femme fatale, a type traditionally played by glamorous stars. Brighter than all the men around her, she is the only one to survive the ordeal.
Ray (John Getz)
Abby (Frances McDormand)
Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya)
Private detective (M. Emmet Walsh)
Meurice (Samm-Art Williams)
Debra (Deborah Newmann)
Landlady (Raquel Gavia)
Radio Evangelist (William Preston Robertson)
Produced by Ethan Coen
Exec-producer: Daniel F. Bacaner
Associate producer: Mark Silverman
Directed by Joel Coen
Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen
Camera: Barry Sonnenfeld
Music: Carter Burwell
Production design: Jane Musky
Editing: Roderick Jaynes and Don Wiegman
Casting: Julie Hughes and Barry Moss
Running time: 97 Minutes