Notable Festivals: Toronto, Sundance (Grand Jury Prize), New York
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Director, Best Male Lead
My first experience with a Coen Brothers film was 1998’s THE BIG LEBOWSKI. I must have been somewhere around 17 or 18 at the time, and when I saw it, the film itself had already been out for five or so years. When my longtime friend heard that I had never seen the film, he immediately went home and brought back his worn DVD copy. Watching the film, I was struck by the sheer originality and audaciousness of the storytelling. I knew that the film had a cult following, but I was totally unprepared for the sheer, batshit-craziness of it all. It was a hell of a cinematic introduction.
Long hailed as two of the finest contemporary directors, Joel and Ethan Coen have carved out a formidable niche for themselves in the world of cinema. Their works are exercises in dichotomy– oftentimes dark and heavy subject matter approached from a wry, comic viewpoint. This approach has given the Coen Brothers one of the most original voices in filmmaking, and each film has managed to accumulate its own dedicated cult of followers. They often credit their sardonic, intellectually-oriented worldview to their Jewish upbringing in the suburbs outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota by parents who both worked in collegiate academia. Their mother, Erna, was an art historian at St. Cloud State University while their father served as an economist at the University of Minnesota. Joel arrived first, in 1954, and Ethan followed three years later, in 1957. Their childhood in the St. Louis Park area, an enclave for Jews and Russians in an otherwise-predominantly Christian state, gave the two brothers something of an outsider’s point of view towards life as well as their art– indeed, their best work often assumes the vantage point of a protagonist at odds against his environment. The duo is famously averse to critical analysis of their work… they take every opportunity to take the piss out of critics and analysts who assign any of their films with a “deeper meaning”. They no doubt would be quick to dismiss this very video series as a frivolous waste of time; an ill-advised attempt to interpret a filmography that actively defies interpretation. Nevertheless, the Coens are a major force in American independent film, and their work is very much worth the risk of coming across like a pompous intellectual if it will bring some valuable insight as to to their cinematic legacy.
The Coens became enamored with filmmaking at an early age, making their own homegrown Super8mm movies with neighborhood friends and a camera they bought using their savings from mowing neighbors’ lawns. Their droll sense of humor, by now their stylistic signature and a major aspect of their cultural appeal, was apparent even at the beginning, judging by such humorously idiosyncratic titles as HENRY KISSINGER, MAN ON THE GO and ZEIMERS IN ZAMBIA. Upon completing high school, both Joel and Ethan went on to study at Bard College in Massachusetts. From there, Ethan went on to Princeton, while Joel went to New York University and made the short film SOUNDINGS– a project that marked the beginning of a serious pursuit of professional filmmaking. After graduation, Joel found work as a production assistant on various industrial films and music videos, working his way deeper into the industry until he landed a gig as an assistant editor on a feature film for an enterprising young director. That director was Sam Raimi. The film was 1981’s iconic cult hit, THE EVIL DEAD.
Raimi proved an invaluable ally when it came time for the Coens to develop their own feature, a violent western / neo-noir hybrid titled BLOOD SIMPLE. The title came from a term coined by novelist Dashiell Hammett, used to describe the addled and fearful mindset people are prone to fall into after becoming involved in a violent situation. The Coens felt it a fitting title to bestow on their inky crime thriller about the fatal consequences of infidelity and miscommunication, whose tone took a page from the Raimi playbook by blending lurid pulp and violence with touches of sardonic humor. The existence of BLOOD SIMPLE. owes a lot to Raimi’s mentorship– in the absence of any connections to studio money, Raimi convinced Joel and Ethan to create a two-minute pitch trailer for the film, featuring THE EVIL DEAD star Bruce Campbell as a man pulling his bloody and broken body along a desolate stretch of highway. The Coens then went door to door, showing neighbors their pitch trailer in the comfort of their own homes, and within a year, they had raised roughly half of their $1.5 million budget– enough to begin production. In the fall of 1982, Joel and Ethan began production of their first feature film, shooting in the Austin and Hutto areas of Texas over the ensuing eight weeks.
BLOOD SIMPLE. illustrates a signature Coen storytelling trope, whereby they take a basic story and layer in a series of plot twists and genre homages to create a wholly original work. While the film’s story story is morbid and dark, the brothers openly acknowledge the sheer absurdity of their scenario and their characters without playing them for laughs. So too does the cast, who wholly embrace the material and make it even funnier with their convincing, stone-faced performances. For the central role of Abby, the housewife whose affair with her husband’s employee kicks off a series of violent turns, the Coens initially wanted Holly Hunter. She wasn’t available, but she knew someone who could knock it out of the park: her roommate, Frances McDormand. If only the Coens could have known then how profoundly this fateful little development would shape their professional and personal lives. Not only would her debut performance here mark the beginning of a highly-accomplished acting career, it would also lead directly to her marriage to Joel in 1984. McDormand’s performance in BLOOD SIMPLE. is a highly memorable one, with a relaxed femininity and syrupy Texan drawl belying a cunning intelligence and a superhuman ability to keep it together under extreme stress. Her character goes against the grain of the era’s gender archetypes, and her razor-tense showdown with M. Emmet Walsh’s antagonist character at the film’s climax serves as a great showpiece for the salty courage and determination that McDormand can convey.
As Abby’s lover and aimless barkeep, Ray, John Getz doesn’t get a lot to say, but his soulful eyes speak volumes about the character. The opposite goes for Dan Hedaya, who chews up every scene he’s in as Julian Marty– an oily, vindictive man who isn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty. Hedaya is an interesting casting choice, as his physicality seems to lend itself more towards East Coast gangster pictures instead of cowboy neo-noirs, but his casting here echoes the fish-out-of-water sentiments no doubt felt by his directors, a pair of Jewish filmmakers from Minnesota immersing themselves in the country western landscape of deep Texas. As Visser, the film’s chief antagonist , the aforementioned Walsh strikes at once both a formidable and genial presence. He’s clearly having the time of his life with his jolly, plump cowboy shtick– a characterization that’s rendered chilling by his relentless malevolence in the third act. There’s a reason that Walsh is featured in the film’s promotional material above everyone else– his performance sears its way into your brain.
To create the film’s uncompromising look and carefully-balanced tone, the Coens turned to Director of Photography Barry Sonnenfeld, who would later go on to become a director in his own right. As the legend goes, Joel had met Sonnenfeld during a party, having hit it off quite nicely after discovering they were the only two Jewish people in attendance. Shooting on 35mm film, Sonnenfeld fills the 1.85:1 frame with warm, strong colors, inky blackness, the lurid glow of neon on a hot desert night, and shocking geysers of crimson blood. The Coens’ knack for strong imagery is already apparent here, regularly showcasing memorable images that wordlessly reinforce the narrative themes, like the final shot showing Emmet’s dying perspective of the underside of a bathroom sink, light streaming through bullet holes in the wall, or even pools of blood seeping up through a towel hastily thrown over the backseat of a car.
For the most part, the Coens use classical camera movements like dollies and cranes to tell their story. However, these tried-and-true techniques are also used in some instances to convey their subtle sense of humor. One memorable instance finds a dolly shot moving across the top of the bar, towards a drunk man who has fallen asleep and threatens to block the camera’s forward movement. Instead of cutting, the Coens simply… pop the camera up over him and continue along as if nothing ever happened. This visual inventiveness extends to several creative transition shots, like the one where a camera swings around as McDormand goes from a standing position in the bar to her lying asleep in her bed several miles away, all captured within a single unbroken shot. Raimi’s influence is even further felt in a handheld shot that races in on the characters at breakneck speed, a technique used quite extensively by Raimi himself in THE EVIL DEAD.
Beginning with BLOOD SIMPLE., the Coens also perform the editing themselves under a fictional pseudonym, Roderick Jaynes. It’s a true testament to the their utter mastery of the craft when they can perform the writing, directing and cutting of a picture without compromising the quality of any part of the process.
The score, composed by Carter Burwell in his first feature-length effort, is appropriately pulpy and lurid. An ominously-spare piano theme is complemented by an electronic synth texture that buzzes with sharpness and malice, while also paying homage to the 70’s slasher thriller sounds pioneered by the likes of John Carpenter. The exaggerated audio motif of a swirling ceiling fan gives the film’s sonic landscape a rhythmically percussive flavor that draws out our sense of suspense and intrigue. An inspired mix of country, R&B, and Spanish folk music fills out BLOOD SIMPLE.’s soundtrack and reflects the diverse, multicultural landscape of rural Texas The Coens’ lifelong fascination with the traditions of American music is modestly referenced for the first time in their work, with the Four Tops’ hit track “It’s The Same Old Song” featuring prominently over several scenes.
There’s a few other “classical Coen tropes” of note, some of which make their first appearance in BLOOD SIMPLE. There’s the moody prologue, set to long shots of the empty landscape while a low-key voiceover in a strong regional dialect muses about the setting and the film’s themes. Many Coen films start this way, a technique that’s no doubt influenced by Billy Wilder’s similar incorporation of the device throughout his own filmography. BLOOD SIMPLE. also introduces the Coens’ penchant for positioning their protagonists as middle class men and women; common folk who are able to provide a street-level view of the action and sit comfortably between the desperation of poverty and the complacency of wealth while observing and commenting on the absurdities of either station. This conceit manifests visually via the iconography of Americana– BLOOD SIMPLE. prominently features images of uniquely American brands like Converse sneakers, Miller High Life beer, and Cadillac cruisers. Despite the film’s self-seriousness, the Coens indulge every opportunity to playfully subvert our genre expectations. The recurring image of fish rotting on a desk while hiding Visser’s easily identifiable and forgotten lighter is about as literal as red herrings come.
BLOOD SIMPLE. plays like an early version of the Coens’ Oscar-winning masterpiece, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN— both films are sparse on dialogue, and heavy on atmosphere. Some of BLOOD SIMPLE.’s most memorable sequences, such as the infamous “live burial” scene, contain no dialogue whatsoever. Beyond the tone and the rural Texas setting, the similarities include the use of sound effects as a suspense-generating device, or the sudden, premature death of the male protagonist. Both are brooding crime dramas, although NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN enjoys the benefits of nearly two decades of professional filmmaking experience and sells its seriousness quite readily. The grit of BLOOD SIMPLE., on the other hand, feels slightly forced… Almost over-compensatory.
That being said, BLOOD SIMPLE. is still an extremely effective thriller and a striking debut film, made all the more special by the careers that the Coens have cultivated for themselves in the years since. The finished film was turned down by every major Hollywood studio, but it proved to be a big hit on the festival circuit, taking home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and winning Best Director and Best Male Lead categories at the Independent Spirit Awards. After its selection into the New York Film Festival, the Coens inked a deal with Circle Films to distribute the film around the US. The small box office returns were to be expected, but the Coens most likely did not anticipate how much the film would resonate with critics. BLOOD SIMPLE. has enjoyed a particularly healthy after-market life, with a retooled director’s cut premiering at the 1998 Austin Film Festival to wide acclaim, and a full restoration being performed in 2015. Typical of the Coens’ preternatural ability to defy expectation, their director’s cut actually clocks in at three minutes shorter than their original version, thanks to tighter edits and some shots that were dropped altogether. With BLOOD SIMPLE., the Coens had established themselves as a formidable new force in the realm of independent cinema.
BLOOD SIMPLE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Twentieth Century Fox.