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Blood Simple (1984)

by on 2011/03/13


“What we need is some time to think about this, figure it out. Anyway, we got some time now. But we got to be smart.”

* * *

Everyone’s got their biases. For some fans, there’s a misunderstood genius who can do no wrong. For others, there are artists as critically acclaimed as they are popular, and just can’t win you over for trying. According to all I know, the Coen brothers fit into the former group for most.

Me? I’m trying hard not to let them fall in the latter. Let’s call my experiences mixed.

Blood Simple is their first major work and, with this viewing, my third, my experience remains mixed. On the strength of its alleged Hitchcockian qualities, I saw it at least a decade ago and disliked it. Then again, a few years ago, I watched it and enjoyed it quite a bit more. Now I’m back in the middle again.

Starring Frances McDormand (Fargo) as the unwise Abby, John Getz (1986‘s The Fly) as her slow-yet-impulsive paramour Ray, Dan Hedaya* as Abby’s sleazy husband Marty, and M. Emmett Walsh (Blade Runner, Romeo + Juliet) as the equally sleazy mercenary Visser.

Now that we know the main players, here’s the set up. Abby and Ray are having an affair. Marty suspects as much, and hires Visser to surveil them. With confirmation, he decides to have them killed for the princely sum of $10,000. Then things get interesting. Most characters have both overt and alternate agendas. No surprise their duplicity manifests itself as suspicion.

Seeds of doubt are planted, but hardly intended or exploited by opponents. This group is hardly Mensan, by any definition. To a one they make foolish decisions, disturb crime scenes, leave evidence, and interact with witnesses.

On the other hand, they are also entertaining, interesting, and painfully — even twistingly — compelling to watch. Their tangled tales converge in a denouement which demonstrates the stated value of a strong finish. The ending helps forgive various minor failings throughout.

For, while the plotting is solid, and the arcs intertwine well, it all takes nigh on forever. Intentional or not, the pacing which works in the most suspenseful stretches, applied to the whole, is deliberate enough to be tiring. Blood Simple feels like an R-rated episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents spread too long, too thin, to feature-length.

And not the Fifties’ AHP . . . the Eighties’.

There are few traces of vintage noir in the Coens’ debut effort. If the content fits the bill, then the execution does not. For every impressive shot (dust kicked up by the foot of a door), there are clunkers (a high-speed zip along the ground, Army of Darkness style).

Some transitions impressed me and yet, within shots themselves, I often found the angles, well, boring. Too many uninteresting perspectives, and takes dragging on a bit . . . I’m not surprised the Coens went back and trimmed this version down.

The use of sound was hit or miss as well. The placement of windshield wipers, fan blades, and bug zapper effects all added an unexpected menace to their scenes. Similarly, the score impressed me, especially early on. Low synth wahs rumble almost subliminally in moments of protracted tension. Later, a piano riff builds on that foundation, suggesting the passage of time, a person waiting and thinking. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the central motif, I found it wanting first in frequency and, eventually, in variety.

Still, I’m glad I gave it another chance, though I don’t know how soon I’ll be back, least of all for a noir fix. The story is serviceable and the characters compelling. However, the setting, careful script, cinematography, and modern music all undercut its reputation and my expectations alike. For better and worse, Blood Simple is a fistful of simpletons taking a long time to do dumb things slowly, with a freshman level of Coen brothers style.

* * *

* Dan Hedaya’s credits would consume an entire article on their own, so here’s a selection of personal favourites: Alien Resurrection, Commando, Mulholland Drive, Night at the Roxbury, Pacific Heights, Running Scared (1986), Searching for Bobby Fischer, and The Usual Suspects.

Rated R / 18A for adult situations, disturbing scenes, language, and violence

96 minutes (Director’s cut)

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