Monday, January 5, 2009

Movie Monday 04: Blood Simple

It's still cold here in PA, but at least there's no ice freezing my rastafaran' neh-nehs off. In the meantime, enjoy this review of the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, a movie I recently sampled with some not-so-hard-earned Christmas money.


“Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”
--M. Emmet Walsh as Loren, Blood Simple

If there was ever a movie I had heard so much about and never had a chance to see, it was Blood Simple. The first film by the Coen Brothers, who would later go on to do Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty, and more recently No Country For Old Men, was recently released onto DVD in a director’s cut edition by MGM, and I was able to purchase it in the independent film section of Target for about ten dollars.

Blood Simple was made in Austin, Texas in 1985, and follows a seemingly simple story. Ray (John Getz) has it bad for his boss’s wife, Abby (Frances McDormand). When Loren (M. Emmet Walsh), a private detective, photographs them together doing the nasty in a motel room on a stormy night, he gives the pictures to Abby’s husband, Marty (Dan Hedaya), the owner of a backwoods bar.

Ray and Abby make plans to leave town together, while Marty decides he can’t live with his wife’s infidelity anymore and agrees to pay Loren $10,000 to kill both Abby and Ray. Typical of most characters M. Emmet Walsh gets to play, Loren has an ulterior motive--he fakes the death photographs of Ray and Abby and then shoots Marty, thereby collecting his fee and leaving the only person who could implicate him looking rather dead.

Ray, not wanting to run off with Abby poor, heads to the bar that night to get two weeks worth of pay that’s owed to him. When he opens the door to Marty’s office, he stumbles onto the crime scene...the blood...Marty’s safe standing open...and, oddly enough, Abby’s revolver lying on the floor, still smoking. Ray can only assume that Abby has killed her husband for her and Ray’s future, and does the only thing he knows to do--clean up the mess and get rid of the body.

And I’m stopping right here, because if I tell you readers anything else about this tightly scripted and tightly-wound southern suspense noir, I’d be ruining what is probably one of the best debut films I’ve ever seen from any writer/director, whether they be brothers or not (and that is taking how much I loved El Mariachi into account).

I had never seen John Getz or Dan Hedaya in a film before, and I feel terrible about that, because now I know what I was missing out on. Getz is the stoic strongman who simply can’t live with what he did to his old boss, or what he thinks Abby did to her husband, and he pulls it off with tens across the board. Dan Hedaya is a natural villain, but it’s not entirely clear why Abby and Marty’s marriage is so bad in the beginning of the film. Whatever the circumstances, you actually start to feel sorry for Marty as his perfect plan to get rid of his wife and his wife’s lover unravels around him, and ends up putting him into an early grave.

Frances McDormand is one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood. I had seen her previously in Darkman, which was not really the most becoming of roles for her (I mean, let’s face it, folks--Darkman wasn’t really becoming for anybody), and it made me wonder what she was truly capable of. I found out by watching Blood Simple. She plays all the angles of Abby’s personality pefectly--the cheating, confused wife; the woman in love with another man; and the woman determined to get to the bottom of who killed her husband. Her reactions in her dream sequence with Dan Hedaya are particularly poignant to me, and are really the standout pieces of acting in the film.

M. Emmet Walsh is one of my favorite character actors, because he’s usually playing these low-life scumbags that you just love to hate. I first saw him in MGM’s Denzel Washington/Robert Townsend vehicle The Mighty Quinn, and I was like “Who is this guy? He’s freakin’ great!” Seeing him in this earlier role solidifies for me that he is one of the most underrated character actors in Hollywood (last time I saw him was in Surviving Christmas, I believe), and seeing him sweating like a pig in that awful yellow suit in Blood Simple with that slightly retarded southern accent was like finding a pot of gold.

The look of this film is true independent style. It represents life as life is, not the color-coordinated hyper-realism that Hollywood often portrays. While that hyper-realism can be fun at times, it wouldn’t have suited Blood Simple. This is a movie where everything was real and practical--the barely furnished studio apartment Abby and Ray move into; the backwoods bar that Marty owns with the statue of a brown bull outside; the field where Ray does the deed to Marty for his ladylove. All of it was real, making it almost surreal, like we’re peeking in on these people’s lives in a voyeuristic fashion.

What I’ve always loved about the Coen Brothers is their offbeat sense of humor. Here in their first film, they were still developing it, but the signs are there of something great. Two particular scenes feature the same joke--Ray’s house is on a dead end street that isn’t labeled as such, and everyone squeals tires as they drive off, then shove it into reverse as they hit the dead end, turn around, and drive back up the street. Even Abby comments on it the first time it happens--“Would have liked to have seen his face when he saw the dead end.” The use of The Four Tops’ tune “It’s The Same Old Song” throughout the movie to juxtapose against certain actions was also a nice example of their offbeat, quirky humor as well.

You might think I’m going to recommend Blood Simple as a great movie for everyone to see, but in actuality, I’m not. I believe that everyone should at least give it a chance, as you should with most things in life, but this movie is for the true fan of tightly-wound thrillers and independent films. Everyone else who doesn’t fall under that category would probably be out to lunch after the first ten minutes (I know most of my colleagues would). So, unless you’re a die-hard Coen Brothers fan and want to see how they got their start, or you’re in the mood for some murderous, double-crossing southern hospitality, then Blood Simple will satisfy that mood nicely.

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