Monday, January 6, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Blood Simple" (1984)

I really thought I'd like "Blood Simple" more than I did. Pre-Lebowski, when the films of Joel and Ethan Coen finally broke into the pop-culture mainstream, I was the lonely nut going around telling everyone how great they were. "Miller's Crossing" remains one of my all-time favorite films.

We parted ways at "No Country for Old Men" -- ironically, the moment when they achieved the pinnacle of their career with multiple Oscar wins. I found "A Serious Man" and "Burn After Reading" to be unworthy trifles, though they redeemed themselves with the mighty remake of "True Grit." But somehow I had never gotten around to seeing their first feature, a neo-film noir set in Texas.

I found "Blood Simple" to be really pretentious and forced. It registers as exactly what it is: the jittery fumblings of promising first-time filmmakers. The Coens' over-reliance on cock-eyed camera angles and moves seems like a transparent attempt to wow the audience by making the director(s) the star of the show.

The film's heightened mood is often strung out too long, resulting in scenes that are languid rather than suspenseful. (The Coens would seem to agree, later issuing a director's cut that was actually shorter than the original -- possibly a first in modern cinema.)

The lead actor can't act. The lead actress isn't given anything to do. And much of the various twists of the plot depend on the characters not saying the most obvious thing a person would say in a given situation.

The ill-fated lovers, Ray and Abby (John Getz and Frances McDormand), each come to suspect the other of murder, but fill their interactions with pregnant pauses instead of useful exchanges of information.

How it would have gone in a logical world: "Why did you kill Marty?!?" "I didn't kill Marty!" "...Oh." And the film ends at the 47-minute mark.

And I'm still trying to wrap my head around the part where a gun fires simply by being stepped on. Does dynamite also explode if you stare at it balefully?

All this isn't to say it's a bad film -- just not the great one I'd been led to believe.

There are many things to admire about "Blood Simple," starting with its economy of scale. The movie has only four important characters, with one other (Meurice the bartender) existing simply to help connect the dots between the other people. I believe there are only two other speaking parts beyond that, plus a voice on an answering machine that I swear is Holly Hunter.

I also liked how it seems as if every object we see is important in some way -- a lighter, a stack of catfish, a shovel, a shoe. Early on we see Abby fumbling in her purse for a box of bullets, finding exactly three. Each one of them will have a momentous future in the story.

Marty (Dan Hedaya) seems out of place, an obvious Northeastern ethnic type stuck in Texas running a latter-day saloon/strip club called the Neon Boot. He wears cowboy boots to fit in with the locals, but he seems to regard them as vile hayseeds, and mostly stays inside his office in the back, emerging only to dispense threats to his employees.

Abby is his young, pretty kept wife who, as the story opens, is running away from Marty. Ray (Getz) is the good-looking bartender who works at the bar, giving her a car ride and letting Abby now that "I've always liked you." This leads to a quick bedding, which is photographed by a seedy private eye.

McDormand is so young and smooth-faced here that she actually comes across looking rather generic, like just another Hollywood starlet getting her big break, instead of starring in a movie directed by her husband, Joel. Her face has definitely gotten more interesting as she's grown older. She's a completely reactive character, seeming rather dim and sad, and indeed she disappears from the story for long stretches, finally getting her moment in the clever final showdown with the private eye.

And Getz ... well, he seems to be trying to do an impersonation of a "speak softly and carry a big stick" type of guy, except he misplaced his stick. His line deliveries are drawled and grating, practically a parody of a big Texas lunk. He sounds like John Wayne coming off a really groovy high with The Dude.

Most of the cast, in fact, speaks in a very deliberate way. The late, great Pauline Kael said it best: "The actors talk so slowly it’s as if the script were written in cement on Hollywood Boulevard."

Anyway, it turns into a convoluted dance of betrayal, with the private eye shooting Marty, who's paid him $10,000 to kill his wife and lover. Ray comes to the bar to collect his back pay and finds Marty seemingly dead. Assuming Abby shot him -- the private dick has conveniently left the .38 revolver Marty bought for her at the crime scene -- Ray takes the body to dispose of, and discovers Marty's still alive.

Ray buries the still-breathing Marty and tells Abby "I took care of it," without ever coming right out and saying what happened. Each ends up believing the other murdered Marty. Meanwhile, the private eye returns to clean up any loose threads, putting them both in his sights.

About that P.I.: M. Emmet Walsh is the film's saving grace as Loren Visser -- which is a terrific movie character name, though I'm not sure we ever actually get to hear anyone call him that. The Coens wrote the part specifically for Walsh, and he invests it with every ounce of creepy, nervous energy at his command. Visser has a tendency to break out into a high jackal's laugh at the most inopportune moments.

Sporting around in an ugly polyester suit, bit Texas hat and dilapidated VW Bug, Visser seems like he wandered in from another, better movie.

Fans of "Blood Simple" have pointed to the intricacy of the plot, the way every move each person makes just sinks them all in deeper. As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review, "Every individual detail seems to make sense, and every individual choice seems logical, but the choices and details form a bewildering labyrinth."

That's accurate only if you buy the notion that these characters would only talk to each other in circuitous arcs utterly devoid of key facts, relying on intimation and intimidation instead. It's understandable when Ray calls Abby on a payphone after burying Marty to be circumspect, since someone could be listening in. But their in-person confrontation a little later is an unbelievable waltz of screenwriter misdirection.

And that's the big problem with this movie: the magician hadn't yet mastered his skills, so we know when he palms a card, or where the ball is under which cup. Everything is so deliberate and paced; the stitch marks are too garish to ignore.

Obviously, the Coens went on to much greater things. They're known as masters of genre-hopping, taking a specific set of expectations and standing them up on their head while also offering their own homage. I prefer to look upon "Blood Simple" as their training ground, and leave it at that.

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