Twice in their career, Joel and Ethan Coen have abandoned their indie roots for the mainstream, only to be humbled by critical brickbats and audience apathy.
Both times, however, the brothers managed to bounce back with an Oscar-winning modern classic: The Hudsucker Proxy was followed by Fargo, while the quick one-two of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers led to No Country For Old Men. (Let’s hope Gambit proves to be an omen of upcoming greatness…)
It is no coincidence that these hits dialled back the whimsy in favour of cold, hard crime stories about bad decisions and deals gone awry, because both Fargo and No Country For Old Men were forged in a very specific image.
Clues are plentiful, but let’s just observe that one stars Frances McDormand, while the other is set in Texas – respectively, the star and location for the Coens’ 1984 debut Blood Simple.a trailer starring Bruce Campbell to drum up funding from private investors.
In the days before the crowd-funding likes of Kickstarter, this is how things got done.
Quite what those money-men thought they were getting, however, is up for debate.
In Blood Simple wealth is as futile a destination as the dead end that provides a running gag throughout the film.
The story revolves around slimy bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), whose unhappy wife Abby (McDormand, also debuting) is sleeping with one of Marty’s employees, Ray (John Getz).
After a private detective (M. Emmet Walsh), unnamed on screen but called Loren Visser in the screenplay, confirms the affair, a jealous Marty dips into his pockets to order a hit. Easy money for a gumshoe who isn’t bothered that the job isn’t strictly legal if the pay’s right... until Visser realises there’s an even easier way to bag the proceeds. At least, that’s the theory.
Instead, Visser’s gamble sucks everyone into a vortex of death and distrust so baffling few comprehend who’s done what to whom, or why.
This is noir pitched equally as tragedy and comedy, with the Jacobean bloodletting (live burial, impaled hands) offset by the farce-like manoeuvring of characters throughout the plot so that they never quite meet.
Welcome to the birth of the most inventive US directors of the past 30 years.
Belonging on a best-debuts list alongside the likes of Citizen Kane, Badlands and Reservoir Dogs, Blood Simple marks the arrival of a fully-formed, formidable filmmaker... or is it filmmakers? In those days, officially, Joel directed, Ethan produced and both penned the screenplay; nowadays, it’s better known that the brothers shared duties, even adopting a pseudonym (Roderick Jaynes, another ‘debutant’) so they could edit the film.
Where did Blood Simple come from? The Coens were obviously well read – the title is a phrase from Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest – and the influence of Raimi shouldn’t be underestimated, from the horror-movie tropes to the cartoonish, drunk-dodging visual style of cinematographer (and future Men In Black director) Barry Sonnenfeld.
Overall, though, this was something new. What’s still startling is the sheer originality of the Coens’ gutter-poetic dialogue and a narrative that subverts the audience’s knowledge of classic noir at every turn.
Technically, too, Blood Simple is an audacious debut, with a wordless, night-time 13-minute set-piece that any established auteur would gnaw their arm off to replicate. Among the mid-’80s pioneers who would make ‘indie’ an American genre in its own right – John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee – the Coens looked the guys most likely to break into Hollywood.
Instead, they created their own world. With Joel’s soon-to-be-wife McDormand (and, uncredited, Holly Hunter) in the cast, this marks the beginning of the Coens’ repertory company, but the pivotal performance comes from Walsh, who must take a lot of credit for shaping the contours of Coenworld given the preponderance of ‘screaming fat men’ in their films.
Visser is venal, bleary-eyed and quite disgusting, but Walsh’s cackling sense of humour transforms him from villain to a kind of genre prankster, single-handedly paving the way for the 1990s boom in independent, postmodern crime thrillers.
Blood Simple was so ahead of its time that it took until Fargo delivered Oscars to Joel, Ethan and McDormand for Hollywood to notice how essential the Coens were to the creative lifeblood of American cinema.
Yet the reason Fargo was so good was because the Coens had been practising for 12 years. Look at their rivals’ work during the mid-’90s: most hadn’t reached anywhere near the quality of Blood Simple.
The Coens agree, sort of. This Blu-ray offers the 1998 Director’s Cut: leaner than the theatrical version by three minutes, after the Coens tightened anything that betrayed their status as first-timers – or, as the spoof trailer included here puts it, “the boring parts have been taken out.”
Sadly, that’s this disc’s only extra; the fake commentary the Coens created for the 2001 DVD release is conspicuously absent.
Thankfully, there’s enough enduring brilliance in the film’s own sleight-of-hand to cover the loss.