Leading up to the release of Hail, Caesar!, Vague Visages explores the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.
“The world is full of complainers. The fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or man of the year; something can all go wrong. Go on ahead, you know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, and watch him fly. Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here, you’re on your own.”
This singular and seemingly omnipotent profundity serves as the first piece of dialogue the Coen Brothers ever put on screen (for any feature film, anyway), and it has informed every one of their efforts since. From the monumental cult success of The Big Lebowski to the critical fame of No Country for Old Men, the world in which the Coens place their characters is one of solemn and thoroughly comic chaos. As a first feature, Blood Simple contains countless tributes to films the Coen Brothers had admired before its conception and exists in a space that pre-dates the grip of their own jarring idiosyncrasies. A mash-up of genres and themes, the film carries on like a tale taller than a jackrabbit on stilts (my best Texas-style simile), and yet Blood Simple manages to achieve a claustrophobic intimacy quite unlike anything before it.
The Coen Brothers’ style (both written and visual) undoubtedly panders to the artistry of their cast, with Blood Simple setting the bar for follow-up triumphs. Texas-sized personas jump off the screen while the characters languish in the mire of their own circumstances. Not so much victims of these predetermined circumstances as much as they are willing participants in them, Ray, Abby, Marty and Loren each play the starring role in the story of their own demise. Operating under the supposition that good luck is boring (even downright trite), Blood Simple plays like a Rube Goldberg machine with a singular outcome — once the wheels are set in motion, the forward momentum becomes an unstoppable force advancing towards its inevitable end. While suggesting that Joel and Ethan enjoy dangling carrots in front of these characters would be a justified statement, the playfulness with which they achieve narrative aims comes across with an authenticity that is often lacking from similarly melodramatic pieces. The Coens’ bitterly dark sense of humor can be felt laughing from above like that of a wrathful god (or gods in this case) as characters scurry about accosting one another and perpetually pleading for forgiveness. Stupidity, avarice and jealousy overlap at every turn, plunging these Texan complainers deeper and deeper into the graves that they are constantly, and unknowingly, digging.
With the freewheeling whimsy of Sam Raimi’s camera and the alarmingly-ominous synth tones of John Carpenter, the Coen Brothers work towards merging neo-noir with horror — leaving plenty of room for visual improvisation and their own budding directorial style. Super-speed dolly shots stolen from The Evil Dead coexist alongside brilliant freehand movements down a bar (and over a passed-out patron) in the same way that cool expressionism manages to dominate in a world bursting with vibrant color. An intuitive grasp on visual storytelling stands out as especially impressive (being a debut feature). Their ability to tie characters together using a single match cut, or to create a vast emotional distance between characters inches apart through wide-angle framing, plays as effortless slight-of-hand. Unafraid to display their particular brand of auteurist omnipotence, the Coens go so far as to give the audience a peek behind the fourth wall, perhaps most demonstrably when the explosive crack of a neon blue bug zapper provides the implied exclamation point to a retort hissed through Dan Hedaya’s gritted teeth.
Blood Simple is the foundation for all of Joel and Ethan Coen’s subsequent films and therefore provides an interpretive key to their impressive body of work. A staggering inaugural film, and I dare say, one of their best, this campy, philosophical, comical and scary piece continues to move me time after time and year after year.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.