It's a murder thriller with stuff in it. Blood is in the title. Yeah, this one's R.
DIRECTORS: Joel and Ethan Coen
It's the Coen Brothers' first official movie! I got this as a gift from my mother (I love her and will not apologize for that. My adulthood and my masculinity are not on trial here.). I was thrilled to get the Criterion edition of this movie because the transfer was awesome, there's a fun essay in the Blu-Ray slip, and I'm super pretentious. While the tone of the essay was overall positive --they aren't going to attack their own product --it kept being kind of snooty about the movie. It treated the film as somewhat simplistic and tongue-in-cheek. Any weaknesses were chalked up to the directors taking the silly way out and joking around. Um, I guess the theme of this criticism is that this movie is fantastic, especially for a first time film.
I guess the reason that I was so floored is that the brothers take the film very seriously. Yes, there are moments that are over-the-top, but they are extremely effective. The Cohen brothers cut their teeth on Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and that was a study in how to make an audience extremely uncomfortable with the use of gore and violence. Blood Simple (For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to the avoid the punctuation in the title) never feels exploitative like Evil Dead, but uses graphic violence to ramp up the tension. SPOILERS, the end sequence with the knife is just brutal. I've weirdly become desensitized to knife through limb violence due to my obsessive content absorption and tendencies towards dark imagery (WHY ARE YOU CONFESSING THIS? We'll talk later.). But the knife through the hand sequence in this movie wasn't cornball like the essay implied. It is amazing. I haven't felt that uncomfortable in a thriller for a while and it is what the scene needs. There's something weirdly artistic about the whole sequence. The narrative is served first, which is completely respectable. But the way the bullets rip apart the drywall, freeing the light behind is gorgeously shot. Add to the fact that M. Emmett Walsh crushes the reality of that moment, and you have a near perfect resolution. It isn't a cheap escape. Rather, there is a desperate scenario that Walsh invests in completely. The amount of success he achieves is impressive, but believable. I don't get where the commentary on this comes from.
The way I understand this is that this is an adaptation of a Daschell Hammett novel. That could go anywhere. I always had a problem with noir / pulp writing, regardless of how iconic the author might be. I'm sure I'd like this novel, but the center that the Coens impress with is the fact that they tell a riveting story with a visual style that's impressive. The thing about thrillers and mysteries is that the auteur needs to know what to show and what not to show. Remember, this is the Coens' first movie. The smart thing would have been to do a straightforward delivery of the content rather than taking risks on stylistic choices. But the movie constantly reminded me that these would be the guys who made No Country for Old Men. The movie is polished to such a level that I don't know how they pulled off some of the shots. The best thing that the essay gave was insights into how some of the shots were done. There is the force focus that the Coens steal from Raimi and I loved knowing that. They are using all of these cool tricks that are just the tip of the iceberg. They borrow from the noir aesthetic, but use the color palate to make the story their own. The movie was made in '84, so they manage to make the film contemporary without resorting to overemphasizing the decade. (An example of overemphasizing the '80s? Any other movie from the '80s.). The Coens have a way of making things fit into the Coen-verse. They have the southern look to the things they do. Texas plays a part in this movie as much as any single location. Yes, the movie could happen anywhere, but the look that I tend to love from them comes out in full. It's such a strong choice and it helps the film.
When I saw that Dan Hedaya and Frances Macdormand were in this movie, I asked "how" and then realized I had found a special artifact outside of time. Their performances are absolutely great. Frances Macdormand is a young actress, probably at the beginning of her career. She's playing a very different role than what I'm used to seeing her in, but she's crushing the character. It is far more down-to-Earth than the other roles I've seen her play, but she makes some very interesting character choices. She easily could be relegated to a type, but she decides on moments. She presents these beats. Hedaya mentions that she would claim that something was "funny", obviously foreshadowing a moment for Ray later. Many other actresses would stress that moment, but she makes it important, yet ignorant simultaneously. I want to gush about Macdormand for the rest of this review, but it would be too fanboy-ey and it wouldn't contribute. She's great. Which makes it weird when I say that Hedaya destroys even more. The iconic image from this movie is an amazing sequence. The part I'm talking about is the cover of the Criterion. Hedaya is a disgusting human being, but his desperation is so sympathetic that I just have sit agog. This character is full. For the antagonist for the film, I can see every moral choice being made. The character has a thin moral code and Hedaya constantly finds himself breaking that moral code into pulp. Hedaya usually plays unlikable guys, but this one is pretty special.
The Coens have made some exceptional films, so I can't say this is one of their best. But for a first movie, I found myself jealous of their amazing talent out of the gate. Their career? It now makes so much sense.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.