Appearing amid the same NYU-fueled mid-‘80s indie boom that introduced Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Susan Seidelman, Joel and Ethan Coen’s boldly facetious and monstrously clever Blood Simple was immediately heralded as something new. This was an independent movie unburdened by political or cultural aspirations — a signal that indies might just want to be fun.
Blood Simple, the version of which I own on DVD is the remixed and slightly re-edited version the Coen brothers call the "director’s cut," gave further notice that the material that had once been the province of Hollywood B movies was now up for grabs. Taking its title from Dashiell Hammett and borrowing a situation from James M. Cain, the Coen’s debut was arguably the most influential noir since Chinatown. More specifically, Blood Simple gave an already highly aestheticized mode an ironic honky-tonk spin — or, rather, twang — while creating a precedent for indies like One False Move, Red Rock West, and Bound, as well as everything ever adapted from Jim Thompson.
Thus the movie became a cultural landmark after all. Nothing if not self-aware, the Coens are fully cognizant of this fact. This re-released Blood Simple may be the first so-called director’s cut to be shorter than the original-release version, but that’s only so they can include another joke. Actually, the new version is exactly the same length as the original because the filmmakers added an introduction in which a distributor identified as Mortimer Young credits Blood Simple with "ushering in the era of independent cinema" and claims that now that the movie has been "digitally enhanced and tastefully restored" (with the "boring parts" excised and the unmistakable voice of Holly Hunter revealed on a telephone answering machine), it will be "forever young."
This epithet has a double meaning. Blood Simple is not exactly in the Citizen Kane-Breathless league, but if there ever was a movie-brat debut, it’s the Coens’ aggressively stylish mixture of showboat formalism and insouciant nose-thumbing. The movie’s Texas landscape is as deliberate as its low-budget economy is ostentatious. This motel-room, two-lane-blacktop love triangle gone sour is a movie of suspicious minds and cartoonish performances. Glowering cuckold Dan Hedaya can hold the screen and nominal heroine Frances McDormand is scarcely less focused here than she would be in Fargo, while M. Emmett Walsh’s good-old-boy affability is allowed to develop a suitably psychotic edge. Fall guy John Getz is the weak link — monotonously dry-mouthed and angst-ridden, he seems to be the one participant not in on the joke.
From the initial storyboard to the final sound design, Blood Simple is a supremely calculated intellectual exercise. The super-studied, neon-colored compositions are stippled by perfectly arranged shadows. In addition to its cast, Blood Simple boasts some distinguished credits — it was the first feature shot by cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld and the first scored by the prolific composer Carter Burwell. There are some classic attention-grabbers, and the movie builds to a stunning denouement — including the horrendous image of an impaled hand — that owes a bit to the Coens’ erstwhile mentor, Sam Evil Dead Raimi. (A dozen years later, Raimi would return the compliment with his A Simple Plan.)
Unextended to their characters, the Coens’ generosity is expressed mainly in the movie’s trove of sight gags, visual surprises, and little knickknacks to keep the frame busy. There is the sense that the Coens are examining life under a microscope or putting rats through mazes for their own amusement. Blood Simple features a hero so stupid that he manages to frame himself, even as he squanders whatever audience sympathy he might have earlier enjoyed. From first shot to last, the Coens seldom miss an opportunity to suggest that theirs is a movie made by evolutionarily advanced life-forms touring a primitive planet.
The 25 Best Movies of 19851. The Color Purple
2. After Hours
3. The Falcon & the Snowman
4. Prizzi’s Honor
7. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
8. Lost in America
10. BLOOD SIMPLE
13. Come and See
14. The Time to Live and the Time to Die
15. Back to the Future
16. My Life as a Dog
17. The Purple Rose of Cairo
18. Out of Africa
19. Kiss of the Spider Woman
20. The Breakfast Club
21. Runaway Train
24. The Journey of Natty Gann
25. The Trip to Bountiful