I’ve never had a real firm opinion of the Coen brothers. Some stuff I really like (O Brother Where Art Thou), some stuff I mostly like (True Grit), and some stuff I don’t particularly like at all (Fargo). And then, of course, there are also the films I could never quite make up my mind about (No Country for Old Men). So I kind of figured well, anything goes when I sat down to watch the Coens’ big screen film debut, Blood Simple.
It’s not without its problems, but for the most part, I enjoyed this film.
A jealous piece of shit (Dan Hedaya) hires a sleazy private eye (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). Things don’t quite go according to plan.
1. For once, I’m not going to critique Netflix’s summary. (Well, not too much, anyway. Maybe just a little bit — but that’s for later.) This time, I’m actually complaining about IMDb’s: “A rich but jealous man hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her new man. But, when blood is involved, nothing is simple.”
Okay, first off, that last line? C’mon, son. I’ll ignore the unnecessary comma after ‘but’ because let’s face it: I am the Queen of the Unnecessary Comma. But seriously — ‘when blood is involved, nothing is simple’? Really, writer? Really? Be honest: you were involved in that whole ‘Titans . . . Will . . . Clash’ fiasco, weren’t you? (No, I will never let that go.) This is unacceptable.
Also, I’m confused by the ‘rich but jealous,’ as if jealousy is a deeply unusual thing to find in a rich person, like the wealthy are somehow less inclined to care if their spouses are schtupping semi-attractive bartenders. (And if I may, a side note? I just googled ‘schtupping’ to make sure I was spelling it correctly — I was — and it seems that the verb is generally spelled ‘shtup,’ but add an ‘ing’ to it, and it suddenly requires a ‘c’? I am deeply perplexed by this. Would someone with a more thorough understanding of Yiddish or just grammar in general care to comment?)
Oh, and while we’re on the deeply relevant subject of grammar: apparently, Blood Simple is properly Blood Simple. because that’s how it appears on the screen. However, I will continue referring to it without the punctuation mark in this review for the simple reason that I think the period looks stupid.
2. All right, so, movie. Yes. Structurally, I think this is a very interesting film. There were some fairly clever subversions of a lot of noir tropes, and many plot developments continually surprised me. (Always a nice treat.) I can’t discuss these in much detail now, unfortunately, but I was fairly impressed with how the story unfolded.
3. I was considerably less impressed with the Magic Blood That Never Dries.
I’m going to lightly spoil this movie for you: someone dies. Yes, a character in a noir movie dies. Stop the presses. I won’t tell you who dies, but I will tell you that they get blood over the backseat of somebody’s car, and that blood continues to thoroughly soak through towels several hours (if not days) later. (I was not fully clear on the time frame.) It drives me CRAZY. I can take all kinds of artsy transitions, like, where a person standing in one room appears to fall backwards into her bed in a completely other room later that night, but for fuck’s sake: blood dries. This is not up for debate. Unless a ghost is literally haunting the back of that car, I do not want to see bleeding car seats.
4. My biggest problem with the film, though, has to do with Abby and Ray’s relationship.
I feel like this is a problem I’ve had with several noir films this year, where the plot relies and/or centers heavily around a romance that I just don’t buy. Like, these two aren’t complete strangers to one another when we meet them — Ray (Getz) tells Abby (McDormand) that he likes her, in an ‘I’ve always liked you, whenever you’ve hung around the bar, even though your husband is my boss and also an asshole’ kind of way. But they clearly don’t actually know each other all that well, and only the next day Ray’s acting weird and kind of jerk-ish around her because inciting jealousy in Ray turns out to be remarkably easy. It’s kind of a weird scene, actually, like I think I know why it’s there but I also don’t know if it’s entirely successful — mostly because it turned me against Ray very early in the film, and I feel like this probably wasn’t intentional.
Regardless, at this point in the movie, I would not say these two are In Love, and I don’t feel like they would say it, either. Except that shortly afterwards, Ray makes some rather startling (and stupid) decisions for someone who isn’t in love. And not too long after that, he actually drops the ‘L’ word, which seems like an all-around bad call. Maybe if this affair had been going on for a long, long time — but that’s not really the impression I got from the beginning of this movie.
5. Overall, I’d say the acting in this film is pretty good. Dan Hedaya and M. Emmett Walsh are both solid, although I think the battle for MVP is between Frances McDormand and John Getz. It’s kind of a trip to see McDormand because she’s so young here. (I think the first thing I saw her in was Fargo, which came out twelve years later.) Her performance isn’t particularly showy, but it’s strong and I really like that Abby isn’t useless. And actually, seeing Getz here is kind of funny too because I primarily know him from Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, where he plays Gus, the Skeevy Schmuck. I did struggle with Ray’s likability at several points, but I also really enjoyed a lot of his reactions as things went from bad to worse. They seemed very believable to me.
6. Finally, the ominous music in this film is not subtle, but it is effective. However, the song I really wanted in this movie is this one:
Uh, don’t watch if you haven’t seen Donnie Darko. BIG TIME SPOILERS there. But seriously, there’s this one scene in Blood Simple where all the main players are sitting alone in the dark, looking appropriately angsty, and I’m like, “Dude, this is one Gary Jules cover away from belonging in a Richard Kelly film. If Frank the Bunny walks in, I am OUT.”
So, some of the things I liked about this movie:
1. The PI is the bad guy.
Now, not every film noir is about a private investigator. And whether they’re PI’s or or cops or writers or insurance salesmen, the protagonists in any film noir tends to have, shall we say, a certain moral flexibility. In some cases, they’re willing to bend the rules in order to solve the case. In others, they’re just straight up doing naughty shit, usually for a woman or money or both. (We’ll skip how women are always luring men into doing Very Bad Things for now, although at some point, maybe I’ll make a list of every story I can think of with this not-at-all tired ‘Eve Tempting Adam’ thread running through it. Or you guys could just do this in the comments section for me.)
Still, even when they’re dislikable, greedy SOBs, the private detective in a film noir is rarely ever the actual antagonist and/or villain of the piece. But that’s exactly what Visser (Walsh) is in this movie, and unequivocally so. It’d be one thing if he just tried to kill Marty (Hedaya) because, dude, that guy is an asshole of the first order. But Visser actually does kill our main protagonist and tries to murder our leading lady, too. His Bad-Guy-Ness is not really a point of contention. (Or if it is, I don’t see how.) Interestingly, I knew Visser was going to double-cross Marty (because Netflix, unfortunately, told me so), but I’ll admit, I figured he was just going to steal the money, or maybe tell Abby and Ray what Marty hired him to do. I didn’t figure Visser was going to shoot the bastard 41 minutes into the movie.
Unfortunately, Visser is not as clever as he thinks he is because not only does he accidentally leave his trusty lighter behind at the crime scene, he never checks to make sure Marty is dead. Of course, Ray doesn’t either because Ray seems bound and determined to make as many terrible decisions as he can in the course of one night.
A. Upon discovering that he is in the room with a dead body, Ray doesn’t immediately leave or call 911. I would have understood either. Instead . . .
B. . . Ray PICKS UP THE GUN lying on the floor, the gun that is very clearly the murder weapon. It’s not like he trips and, oh no, his fingers accidentally landed on the handle or something. No, he actually has to get on his knees and fish the gun out from underneath this big thing — because that is absolutely what you should be doing at a crime scene, particularly when the corpse just happens to be the dead body of the guy whose wife you are currently screwing on your off hours.
C. Ray tries to clean up the crime scene.
Now, admittedly, he’s doing this because the gun is Abby’s and he thinks she’s the one who murdered Marty. Which is sweet, I guess, although since I don’t really buy their love connection at this point, I have a hard time believing that he’d do this for her. Because I’ll tell you, I like a lot of people in my life, but there are very few I’d actually be willing to bury bodies for. (If you’re wondering, it’s probably not you.) Self-preservation would be much more understandable, except if self-preservation was really the driving motivation, you think Ray wouldn’t have picked up the fucking gun in the first place. I’m sorry, I’m not getting over that any time soon. When will people stop doing this in movies? WHEN?
D. Ray doesn’t check Marty’s pulse before dragging him back to his car and driving far, far away. Which is particularly unfortunate because Marty is not quite dead yet, and Ray now has a choice: does he suspiciously take Marty to the hospital like that’s where he was going all along, or does he finish Marty off himself? The latter is obviously morally wrong, but all things considered, it’s probably the smarter call if he wants to avoid jail. Surprisingly, Ray makes the smarter call for once . . .
E. . . in the most inhumane fashion ever. Does Ray let Marty get hit by a semi? No, he rescues him from that fate. Does Ray end it quickly with a shovel to the head? No, he can’t quite make himself do something as shockingly violent as that.
What he can do, it turns out, is bury Marty alive.
That’s right. Ray digs (a stupidly shallow) grave and then buries Marty in it because that’s somehow less troubling for him. Even I felt a little bad for Marty, and Marty’s a possessive, psychotic jackass who the world is certainly better off without.
Although this does lead to another thing I liked about the film:
2. Without ever stopping to actually say, “Oh, God, what have I done?” Ray basically spends the rest of the movie freaking the hell out.
Here’s what I find interesting about Ray: at the beginning of the film, he’s got that kind of ‘laconic, I-don’t-give-two-shits-what-anyone-thinks-of-me’ persona that you expect from a protagonist in a film noir — in fact, he’d fit right in with plenty of private and police detectives from the genre. But the actual private detective in Blood Simple is an obnoxious, opportunistic sleazeball who murders people. Meanwhile, Ray — who you almost expect to be all, “Hey, baby, it’s chill cause I did it for you” — can barely eat or sleep for the guilt of what he’s done and becomes immediately paranoid when Abby acts like she doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Which, of course, she doesn’t because Ray never comes right out and says, “Abby, I found your husband’s body, and I buried it because I didn’t want the cops to realize you had killed him. Also, he wasn’t quite dead when I buried him because I’m a terrible person, and for this reason alone, I’d understand if you wanted to stop sleeping with me.”
One of the clever things about this movie is how it’s set up so that nobody knows all the facts. Marty’s duped into believing Visser killed Ray and Abby, but Visser doesn’t realize that Marty’s secretly kept one of the photos of the staged crime. (Not to mention he loses that lighter.) Ray doesn’t know that Visser planted Abby’s gun, and Abby doesn’t know about Visser at all, not even at the very end of the film. (We’ll get to that.)
And Abby, too, is not quite who you think she is when the movie begins.
At the beginning of the film, Abby is set up to be the usual femme fatale, particularly when Asshole Marty tells Stupid Ray that, basically, she’s a ho who’s going to abandon him the second she feels like it. Specifically, Marty says that Abby will pretend she isn’t sleeping around by saying, “I ain’t done nothing funny.”
Now, this scene pays off nicely when Abby does indeed say that exact same thing, only Ray doesn’t think she’s lying about sleeping around. He thinks she’s lying about killing Marty and is, essentially, leaving him to hang for it. Which is pretty clever, actually, switching up the context like that — my problem is, even before all this murder nonsense happens, Ray does get super jealous after Marty winds him up, and he starts acting all rude and standoffish to Abby, which made me immediately dislike him. Like, really, guy? Some total schmuck says a few words about your girlfriend’s possible future infidelity, and you’re like, Yup, he’s definitely got a point. Better go home and be an asshole to my woman. I mean, what is this, Othello?
Not to mention, Ray’s kind of a serious dick about sleeping with Abby in general. Mind you, this is before anyone’s hired to kill anyone else. It’s even before Marty sneaks into Ray’s house and attacks Abby like the fucking psychotic creeper that he is — I wouldn’t give a shit what Ray said to him then. But at THIS point, all Ray knows is that he’s sleeping with the boss’s wife, and while I wouldn’t expect him to apologize, I’m not entirely convinced he has to be such a complete tool about it, either.
So, yeah. I kind of immediately hated Ray. On the other hand . . .
3. I liked Abby quite a bit.
For one thing, we discover pretty quickly that she’s not some manipulative, boyfriend-hopping, ‘I-seduce-men-to-the-Dark-Side’ trope of a woman fairly fast. All the rambling about Marty’s anal retentiveness made that fairly clear. (Although, I will admit the dialogue in that scene seemed a little off to me, like, I kind of felt Abby and Ray were having two different conversations there.) I wouldn’t say she’s a particularly well-developed character, but she’s not the cliche I assumed she would be, and that means a lot. Plus, when Marty does sneak in and attack her like the fucking psychotic creeper that he is, Abby breaks his finger, not to mention kicks him in the nuts so hard that he vomits.
Fuck yeah, Abby. Good for you.
Abby continues her awesomeness at the end of the movie — but let’s come back to that in a minute. First, Ray freaks Abby out by saying that he buried Marty alive. Abby tells Meurice (another one of Marty’s employees) this, and Meurice (quite rightly) says that she should stay away from Ray, although he also says (quite incorrectly) that Marty can’t be dead. (I’m a little sad that Meurice and his new friend Debbie didn’t end up having bigger roles, although frankly I’m just happy Meurice didn’t die, considering he’s the only non-white character in the whole movie.) I definitely assumed that the movie was setting Abby up to murder Ray — which, yawn — but luckily, I was wrong about that.
Actually, Ray is waiting for Abby in their loft, standing in the dark like another fucking psychotic creeper. Only he actually has a legitimate reason to be standing alone in the dark: he thinks someone (i.e., Visser) is outside, watching him. Abby doesn’t believe him (in her defense, she doesn’t have much reason to) and turns on the light. Ray, for some reason, continues to stand as he tries to explain to her that he’s not a psychotic murderer instead of immediately getting low to the ground. For this, he is promptly murdered.
This reminded me so strongly of a scene from Veronica Mars that I couldn’t help but wonder if Rob Thomas had been inspired by Blood Simple. (He might not have been. Getting killed for standing in front of large windows is a time-honored tradition, as seen in movies such as Dog Soldiers, Feast, and Lethal Weapon.) Anyway, Ray is super toast. We know that he’s super toast because Visser takes the time to hit him over the head with what I think is some kind of small statue. (But I swear to God, initially I thought it was one of Marty’s frozen dead fish. I was like, Wow, that is a particularly odd weapon to carry around with you from crime scene to crime scene.)
Meanwhile, Abby has little choice but to lock herself in the bathroom when Visser comes for her. She manages to climb out the window and crawl into the next apartment. When Visser tries to do this as well, Abby awesomely stabs his hand through the windowsill, pinning him down. Then she circles around back to the apartment, walking unnecessarily slowly. There’s actually a cool reversal here where Visser is suddenly playing the victim trapped in the bathroom, usually a woman’s role. (In fact, it just was.) And Abby’s playing the bad guy and person with power, so the Slow Stroll of Doom works thematically — she’s gone from being Laurie Strode to Michael Myers in about five minutes. Still. Practically, it just drives me nuts. For the love of God, woman. Walk faster before he manages to free himself and come at you.
Abby (finally) circles back to her own apartment and picks up her gun. (Which only has one bullet left it in it — I like how this particular gun is used dramatically throughout the film). And before Visser can, in fact, come at her, she shoots him through the door.
I was worried that she was going to hit something non-vital and have no ammunition left, but she doesn’t. Instead, it’s a much more interesting reveal/twist: Abby says, “I’m not afraid of you, Marty.” Because, see, she automatically assumes it’s Marty who’s come to kill her, which from her perspective completely makes sense, since he’s already attacked her once, and she never actually saw Visser’s face. Meurice has told her that Marty’s still alive, and Abby doesn’t have any way to know her husband hired a private detective in the first place. I think all that works really well.
I will admit to not quite getting the last shot, though. Visser laughs hysterically and gets his last line in, but then looks like he’s freaking out about . . . a drop of water soon to drip on his head? If there’s some bigger meaning in that, I didn’t get it at all, because all I could think was, Dude, you’ve got a bullet in your belly. I feel like there are more pressing issues at hand. It just seems like a really weird shot to end the film on.
But end, it did. And that’s about that.
Marty: “You know, in Greece, they would cut off the head of the messenger that brought the bad news.”
Visser: “Now that don’t make much sense.”
Marty: “No. It made them feel better.”
Visser: “Well, first off, Julian, I don’t know what the story is in Greece, but in this state, we got very definite laws about that.”
Visser: “Well, give me a call when you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.”
Ray: “Liked to have seen his face when he found the dead end.”
Marty: “So, what’re you doing tonight?”
Debra: “Going out with Meurice.”
Marty: “Tell him you have a headache.”
Debra: “It’ll pass.”
Marty: “We don’t seem to be communicating — ”
Debra: “You want to hustle me. I don’t want to be hustled. It’s as simple as that. Now that I’ve communicated, why don’t you leave?”
Ray: “Is Marty here tonight?”
Meurice: “Not here tonight. Wasn’t here last night. He’s especially not back in his office.”
Abby: “I’m not afraid of you, Marty.”
Visser (laughing): “Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”
Marty: “I got a job for you.”
Visser: “Well, if the pay’s right and it’s legal, I’ll do it.”
Marty: “It’s not strictly legal.”
Visser: “Well, if the pay’s right, I’ll do it.”
Not bad. Not perfect — it’s got a few rough edges — but it’s interesting and, at points, extremely clever.
Use your words. If you were a better communicator, Ray, you might not be dead right now. At the very least, stop standing in front of giant windows when you think someone might want you dead. I mean, that’s just common sense, right? Haven’t you seen Lethal Weapon?