Tuesday 7 May 2019

Movie Review: Blood Simple (1984)

A neo-noir masterpiece, Blood Simple is the debut of the Coen brothers and an exquisitely crafted crime thriller.

In rural Texas, Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating on her husband Marty (Dan Hedaya), a bar owner, with his employee Ray (John Getz). But Marty is on to her, and has hired private detective Lorren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to catch Abby in the act, which he promptly does. Marty tries and fails to reel Abby in, and in desperation hires Visser to help him exact revenge. But events will spiral in unexpected and dangerous directions for the lovers, the jilted husband and the detective.

The plot summary is just the start. Blood Simple stands atop that foundation of infidelity and humiliation and builds a delightfully askew structure, where every next level is twisted. Double crosses and on-the-fly criminal improvisations engulf the characters in a nightmare of their own making, driven by overlapping combinations of lust, love, greed and retribution.

Produced on a budget of $1.5 million, Blood Simple credits Joel Coen as director and his brother Ethan as producer, and both as co-writers. But this is the start of their shared vision to create quality quirky films, and their first big screen foray delivers a visual and cerebral treat.

Classic film noir fundamentals abound, with all the characters deeply flawed and susceptible to self-serving sin. In the first scene Abby hints to her lover Ray that maybe something bad should happen to her husband Marty; the detective Visser is primarily interested in lining his pockets; and all three men are not beyond plotting and executing acts of violence most foul.

And the classic noir style is also evident in almost every scene. The film opens with an in-car conversation between two silhouettes on a rainy night, interrupted at regular intervals by the headlights of oncoming traffic. Later, light streams through bullet holes in a perforated wall. Lazy ceiling fans shuffle the stale air and help transition scenes and settings. And from third-rate motel rooms to the cluttered back room of Marty's bar, the Coens find ideal locales for everything to go wrong.

The highlight set-piece is an unforgettable Hitchcock-meets-noir sequence involving a victim, blood-soaked clothes, an attempted cover-up, an abandoned country road, a shovel and a grave site. It's an excruciatingly beautiful piece of tense film making, devoid of dialogue but filled with dread and mounting horror.

The four principal cast members fully immerse into their characters. Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh have rarely had similar opportunities for prominence, and both demonstrate their often underutilized dedication to scheming personas. Walsh, in particular, finds a career highlight as the sleazy private detective happy to freelance in search of maximum profit for least amount of work.

John Getz creates in Ray the perfect handsome but maybe not-so-smart guy ensnared by the wrong woman. In her debut, Frances McDormand projects just the right amount of sly seductiveness under an innocent veneer.

The final showdown features an attempt to tidy up criminal loose ends, and by this stage every ill-advised plan to cause harm has taken an astonishing turn. It's generally inadvisable to take a knife to a gunfight, but in Blood Simple, nothing is that simple.

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