by Pauline Kael
Blood Simple has no sense of what we normally think of as “reality,” and it has no connections with “experience.” It’s not a great exercise in style, either. It derives from pop sources—from movies such as Diabolique and grubby B pictures and hardboiled steamy fiction such as that of James M. Cain. It’s so derivative that it isn’t a thriller—it’s a crude, ghoulish comedy on thriller themes. The director, Joel Coen, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Ethan, who was the producer, is inventive and amusing when it comes to highly composed camera setups or burying someone alive. But he doesn’t seem to know what to do with the actors; they give their words too much deliberation and weight, and they always look primed for the camera. So they come across as amateurs.
The movie is set in a familiar, cartoon version of Texas, where Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), a swarthy middle-aged Easterner with a wrestler’s crouch, owns a roadhouse, the Neon Boot, and thinks he owns his young wife, Abby (Frances McDormand). When she leaves him and goes off with one of the bartenders—tall, well-built Ray (John Getz)—Marty hires Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), a sweaty, good-ol’-boy private detective, to follow the pair, and after Visser, grinning with malign satisfaction, shows him pictures of the two cuckolding him in a series of positions (it’s like a porny slide show) he makes a deal with Visser to kill them. The plot is about how the detective takes Marty’s money and double-crosses him. The one real novelty in the conception is that the audience has a God’s-eye view of who is doing what to whom, while the characters have a blinkered view and, misinterpreting what they see, sometimes take totally inexpedient action. Blood Simple gets almost all its limited charge from sticking to this device, which gives the movie the pattern of farce—it works best when someone misinterprets who the enemy is but has the right response anyway. (It’s like a bedroom farce, except that the people sneaking into each other’s homes have vicious rather than amorous intentions.) .
Early in the movie, Marty and his only friend, a German shepherd named Opal, who’s like his shadow, sneak into Ray’s apartment, and Marty makes a grab for Abby. She breaks free by kicking him hard in the groin, and we know at once that Blood Simple is an art movie, because Marty moves front—to the camera—to throw up. It’s a splatter- movie art movie. Marty throws up again and again, and he’s a mighty good bleeder, too. One liquid or another is always splashing out of him. And there are film noir in-jokes: there’s a whirring, growling ceiling fan in just about every room in the movie. At one point, Coen cuts from Marty, in his office at the roadhouse, looking up at his fan to Abby, at Ray’s place, looking up at his fan. The cut should come across as funnier than it does—these moviemakers don’t always have their comedy timing worked out. And often you can’t tell if something is a gag or just a goof. When Abby, practically overnight, turns out to be living in a magnificent loft with huge arched windows, you may do a double take—she didn’t seem to be that chic a girl. Is it a gag when bullets are fired into a wall of her loft and the holes might have been made by cannonballs? I don’t know, and it doesn’t seem to matter. Blood Simple isn’t much of a movie; it’s thin—a rain-on-the-windshield picture that doesn’t develop enough suspense until about the last ten minutes, when the action is so grisly that it has a kick.
At moments, the awkwardness of the line readings is reminiscent of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but Blood Simple doesn’t have the genuine creepiness of the Romero film. And though the dialogue is much sharper and smarter than Romero’s dialogue, the actors talk so slowly it’s as if the script were written in cement on Hollywood Boulevard. The picture is overcalculated—pulpy yet art-conscious. It has the look of film noir, but it lacks the hypnotic feel, the heat and the dreaminess of effective noir. Even when the material leads us to anticipate something nasty, it often doesn’t pay off. When Ray goes to see Marty and tries to collect the two weeks’ pay that’s due him, they talk together while we look out the window that’s between them: there’s a huge, blazing incinerator behind the Neon Boot, and a couple of people are tossing large objects into it. In a movie as uninhabited as this one, if a gigantic prop like the incinerator isn’t going to be used for body disposal, surely whatever it is used for has to be comic? Coen sets up an inferno and then, except for a bloody jacket being thrown into it, nothing comes of it, one way or the other. Nothing comes of Opal, the German shepherd, either; she disappears, and nobody seems to notice— not even Marty. (This happened in Rocky and Silkwood, too. Sometimes I get the feeling that The New Yorker’s Current Cinema is turning into The Lost Dogs Department.)
Joel Coen may flub the point of some of the scenes, and toss in inane closeups of a bludgeoning weapon to show us that it’s a piggy bank, but he knows how to place the characters and the props in the film frame in a way that makes the audience feel knowing and in on the joke. The film’s technique is spelled out for the audience to recognize. Coen’s style is deadpan and klutzy, and he uses the klutziness as his trump card. It’s how he gets his laughs. The audience responds (as it did at Halloween) to the crudeness of the hyperbole, and enjoys not having to take things seriously. The cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, works in ghouls’ colors—thick, dirty greens, magentas, and sulfurous yellows. The film looks grimy and lurid; it seems to take its visual cues from the neon signs in the bar and a string of fish putrefying in Marty’s office. What’s at work here is a visually sophisticated form of gross-out humor.
Dan Hedaya’s performance as Marty the gusher is almost wrecked by too much lip curling between words, but Hedaya develops a funny presence—he’s like a primate version of Michel Piccoli—and his acting seems to get better when Marty is twitchy and writhing and only semiconscious. As Visser, the cackling obscenity, M. Emmet Walsh is the only colorful performer. He lays on the loathsomeness, but he gives it a little twirl—a sportiness. The Coens wrote the role with him in mind (they didn’t have anything in mind when they wrote Abby and Ray), and when Walsh is onscreen in his straw cattleman’s hat and his bulging yellow suit the muggy atmosphere is like congealed sweat. Visser drives a VW bug; he is a bug, a rotting one—he draws flies. Most of what’s framed by the camera is of no interest—it’s barely animate, except for Walsh. His broad buffoonery helps to ground the picture, to keep it jaundiced and low-down. (At one point, when Abby and Ray are in bed together and Visser takes a flashbulb snap of them, the director apparently can’t resist having the screen turn white, as if they’d been nuked. The effect nukes the tawdry genre Coen is working in.)
Film students looking at old movies seem to find it exciting when a cheap B thriller or an exploitation picture has art qualities, and they often make draggy, empty short films that aren’t interested in anything but imitating those pictures and their “great shots.” (The student directors of those shorts never know what to do with the actors—there’s nothing for them to express.) Blood Simple is that kind of student film on a larger scale. It isn’t really about anything except making a commercial narrative movie outside the industry. The Coens, who live in New York (Joel graduated from N.Y.U. film school), raised their million-and-a-half budget from private investors, most of them in Minneapolis, where the boys grew up. In interviews, the brothers (Joel was twenty-nine when he made the film and Ethan only twenty-six) are quick and bright; they sound as if they’d popped out of a Tom Stoppard play. But I don’t quite understand the press’s enthusiasm for these two young, well- educated Americans, the sons of college-professor parents, who want to make the most commercial kind of Hollywood movies but to do it more economically and with more freedom outside the industry. What’s the glory of making films outside the industry if they’re Hollywood films at heart, or, worse than that—Hollywood by-product? Joel and Ethan Coen may be entrepreneurial heroes, but they’re not moviemaker heroes. Blood Simple has no openness—it doesn’t breathe.
The reviewers who hail the film as a great debut and rank the Coens with Welles, Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Sergio Leone may be transported by seeing so many tricks and flourishes from sources they’re familiar with. But the reason the camera whoop-de-do is so noticeable is that there’s nothing else going on. The movie doesn’t even seem meant to have any rhythmic flow; the Coens just want us to respond to a bunch of “touches” on routine themes. (These art touches are their jokes.) Blood Simple comes on as self-mocking, but it has no self to mock. Nobody in the moviemaking team or in the audience is committed to anything; nothing is being risked except the million and a half.
The New Yorker, February 25, 1985