Texas Noir: Erasing the Shame of Having Never Seen Blood Simple

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My introduction to the Coen brothers was watching Raising Arizona as a child. Even as a preschool tot it was one of my go to films. I loved the cast and the offbeat humor. The bounty hunter scared me, of course, but his imposing demeanour was softened somehow by his introduction in an ominous, foreboding dream.  It was one of the first films I saw that dealt with regular people getting in over their heads when they dabbled in crime. As I got older and watched more of the Coen’s films, I quickly caught on that this was kind of their thing – and it all started with Blood Simple.

At some point last year, I bought a nice little box of Coen Brothers blu rays. After watching Raising Arizona for the thousandth time, I finally watched Fargo (loved it) and the amazing Miller’s Crossing (thanks to an offhand tweet by @MisterGreggles). Then, I put the box back on the shelf with one unwatched film (still in shrink wrap) and promptly forgot about it – until now.

I don’t know why it took so long to get around to watching Blood Simple. It just seemed that every time I almost popped it in, I decided against it and watched something either more familiar or with way more spaceships. I mean, I knew it was a well liked film, but I just kept convincing myself that watching it would feel like homework. Boy, was I wrong.

Blood Simple is brilliant. It’s smaller than a lot of their later films, but it wears its indie film label well. As in most of their films, it’s a story about murder intersecting with greed and incompetence. Dan Hedaya plays a Texas nightclub owner whose wife (Frances McDormand) is sleeping with one of his employees. Naturally, he’s angry and hires a shady P.I. (played wonderfully by the great M. Emmet Walsh) to “take care” of his little problem.

This being a Coen brothers movie, nothing goes to plan, and the resulting confusion keeps stacking up on itself. Along the way, all the things that made the Coens great are on display.

The casting is perfect and everyone feels real in their roles. I really believed that these characters existed in Texas 30+ years ago. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Texas, but I felt like I had seen these people a million times over in my youth. Dan Hedaya was mesmerizing to me, masterfully capturing the emotions that spill out of the violent when they’re sad. I’ll admit it was a little odd seeing Frances McDormand so young after years of seeing her as a more matronly figure, but her performance is great and I can see why the Coens have returned to her so often in their later works (being Joel’s wife probably helps, too). My favorite, though, is M. Emmet Walsh as the mostly unlikable private investigator. He’s an overly confident, but bumbling, man and he reminded me, in a way, of John Goodman’s despicable one eyed Bible salesman in O, Brother.

The patented dark humor is there as well, especially from Walsh, and there were quite a few chuckles to be had in the midst of such dark happenings. This balancing act between deathly serious and oddly humorous has been a Coens staple for years, and it was good to see that they have had such a firm grasp on it from the beginning.

There are some great shots throughout the film that give a little taste of the iconic images to be found in the brothers’ later works. In particular, there’s a shot of Hedaya crawling on the road that has stuck with me ever since my viewing. While nothing quite meets the high art of Miller’s Crossing’s gorgeous photography, Barry Sonnenfeld still does very solid work as DP.

It’s hard to talk more about the film without just plain giving away a lot of the twists that the script takes, so I will wrap this up with a hearty suggestion that you see Blood Simple soon if it’s on your own personal shame list. Hell, even if you have seen it, you should probably revisit it. It’s definitely a case of hitting all the notes perfectly right out of the gate. I can only imagine coming out of an early viewing, knowing that the filmmakers you just saw at work would be coming back with more greatness in the future.

My Next CinemaShame:  Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

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