After almost 20 years making films together, it is good to remember just how powerful the Coen Brothers first film was. Their directing-producing partnership began with Blood Simple, a debut as stark as a punch to the gut.
Despite being their first film, it already contains many of the Coens’ famous trademarks – humour, OTT violence, and quirky characters, including slightly stupid crooks. Yep, they heap up the violence and ladle on the blood, as you might expect with a title like Blood Simple. Joel Coen had previously worked as an assistant editor on Sam Raimi’s famously gory, and funny, Evil Dead (1981) a few years before they made this film, and some of the gore must have rubbed off.
One of the most obviously recognisable elements for Coen Bros fans will be the appearance of their frequent collaborator, and Joel’s wife, Frances McDormand. She plays Abby, the wife of Texan bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) who is having an affair with Ray (John Getz). Unhappy about the situation, Marty hires a private detective to first spy on, and then kill, his wife and her lover. The PI decides a different approach might be more profitable and events take a turn for the worse.
Visser the detective is played by M. Emmet Walsh, an character actor of such force that uber-critic Roger Ebert coined the Stanton-Walsh Rule about him, which holds that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” In the case of Blood Simple, we can be a bit more forthright – the film is altogether good.
With infidelity, private detectives and murder on the cards, we can only be in Noir territory. Indeed, most of the film is shot at night. However, genre spotters might notice shades of Southern Gothic (as well as horror), that literary sub-genre rooted in a Deep South of America that oozes with bizarre characters, random violence, empty landscapes and doomed romance. As quite a lot of the film was shot in Austin, Texas, perhaps it might be better to call this Texas Gothic. Like Southern Gothic but with more stetsons.
Although treading in familiar genre territory, the plotting is the Coens at their most inventive. Watching the film for the first time you will find yourself being taken in all sorts of unexpected directions best not revealed here. This edition of the film is the Director’s Cut, which unlike most examples of the format, actually has five minutes cut out. It testament to the Coen’s skill as filmmakers that they tightened up their film rather than padding it out. The running time comes in at an almost perfect 127 minutes, the sort of length that harks back to the Noir classics they obviously love.
Noir detectives might always have been characterized by their gallows humour and encounters with violence, but the Coen brothers move the laughs closer to the centre of the story. The maimings and murder are shocking and hilarious in equal measure. It is also fun to see now familiar Coen elements get their first outing, but mostly Blood Simple is story telling at its tautest and as good as anything they have gone on to make.
Blood Simple is released on Monday 15 April, 2013.