Nihilism, cynicism, misanthropy, condescension, misandry, shallowness, and hollowness. When detractors are set on reducing Joel and Ethan Coen’s work, these are the words they invariably use to describe the filmmakers’ methods. To be fair, the naysayers aren’t entirely wrong. On more than one occasion, the Coens’ considerable talents have been put to use in the name of bitterness and cheap, caustic rib-poking, which might have been fine if their targets weren’t so broadly drawn and if there wasn’t just a hint of smugness in how it all played out. Even in their best work, there are always a few lines, or in some cases entire scenes, that stink of a certain, impermeable snark. Their brand of cinema isn’t one of vulnerability, nor humility for that matter.
This is all to say that it comes as something of a surprise to come back to the Coens’ auspicious debut, Blood Simple, over a quarter-century after it was released and a solid decade since I last saw it, and find that it remains the one true oddity in the Coen canon that I had faintly remembered it as. For whatever barbed, flippant debasements they so freely hand out in their career nowadays, Blood Simple finds the Coens in a tricky, beguilingly sobered formalist mode, building a dark and devious noir out of trove of double-crosses, seedy dealings, a few bad deaths, and one genuinely frightening nightmare, with the Four Tops’s “It’s the Same Old Song” seemingly on repeat.
The use of that song, and a bit of business about communism versus Texas law, is about as big as the winks get here. Well, that’s not entirely true, as Blood Simple opens with a strange and cocky voiceover monologue that posits the film as a lost masterpiece of sorts. Following this intro, we’re whisked into the pulp of the tale, with Ray (John Getz) admitting his feelings for his boss’s wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), and taking her to a motel for an hours-long roll in the hay. Not so long after, Abby’s husband, Julian (Dan Hedaya), who runs a honkytonk bar, hires a gleefully perverse, 10-gallon-hat-sporting private dick, Loren (M. Emmet Walsh), to first take pictures of the lovers and then kill them. Loren offers Julian photos of the couple riddled with bullets and is only happy to show similar respect to his employer, seemingly dispatching him with a single bullet.
As one might expect, the photos weren’t exactly accurate and that slug didn’t exactly kill Julian. And things get far grimmer when Loren decides to actually finish the job Julian hired him for, culminating in a denouement as tense and haunting as anything the Coens have ever put to the screen. The story unravels methodically, from a script by the Coens, and the cinematography, courtesy of Barry Sonnenfeld, helps the actors bring out the sinister mood of the story. Take, for instance, Julian’s rushing, brutal, and ultimately hilarious assault on Abby or, in contrast, the sequence in which Julian gives Loren the go-ahead to kill Abby and Ray, taking place in daylight at a make-out point-type setting, which nearly drips with inappropriate intimations.
There’s a simple magnetism inherent in this kind of filmmaking, and the Coens know how to orchestrate it. They extend one particular character’s death to exhausting length, so that the audience’s nerves have been pan-seared by the time he’s buried alive in a patch of soft Texas soil. But they also complicate the recipe, making Abby a mightily complex femme fatale, one who’s more aloof and disinterested than diabolical. Still, this is the Coens in chrysalis, their particular brand of gallows humor having yet to fully ferment. As genre work goes, this is exemplary, chilling stuff, packed with the time-tested totems of the smoky, sweat-stained noir, but there’s a hesitation to bring that wink that presaged the film (and their entire directing career) into the fold and fully embrace their smirk-laden outlook, which has come to sound like the same easy-to-enjoy, hard-to-love song.