You can’t really get the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men unless you’ve first watched (and gotten) Blood Simple. Now I have to go re-watch the former. It’s far too easy, these days, to hear/read about good filmmakers and view their recent work, when it might be better to start from the beginning. (Wim, if you’re reading, you have exemplified this in the realm of popular music.) Now that I’ve finally seen Barton Fink and Blood Simple, I feel ready not only for the remaining two Coen works I haven’t yet seen (Miller’s Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy) but also to re-view the rest of their corpus.
The popular literature out there has deeply mixed feelings about Blood Simple, with half of the reviewers quickly concluding that the Coens’ first work was, simply, an overhyped B-movie. Thankfully, better thinkers have noted that this is the inaugural work from an important filmmaking duo that deserves careful attention. It would be difficult to argue now that the Coens are not at least talented, or better. They have established themes and motifs in their films that give them the status of auteurs (if you’re into that). Blood Simple contains most, if not all, of those themes and motifs.
The Mortimer Young introduction is almost as delightful here as it is on The Big Lebowski. The rest of that speaks for itself. Within the first couple frames, the film establishes itself as a fusion noir/western genre film, and soon it will display major signs of the thriller/horror genre. Here already is a great stumbling-block to viewers, who have seen in Blood Simple nothing more than a mash-up of long-established movie clichés, as if the Coen brothers are just a less-creative Quentin Tarantino. The camera slowly moves in on towns and factories in a way that The Big Lebowski will later do more overtly, and the noir/western/thriller/horror/comedy feel of this film is repeated to grand effect in No Country for Old Men.
After the beginning shots of the landscape, the camera is placed in the back seat of a car, behind and between two characters as they drive. It is dark and rainy, and the headlights and windshield wipers ineffectively attempt to dispel the darkness and blurriness. It seems that the Coens are emphasizing the noir-nature of the film: what is ahead is unseen and most likely sinister in nature. The character of Abby, even early in the film, reminds one of other Coen brothers women, as in Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and No Country for Old Men. Ray may also be a foreshadow of Josh Brolin’s character in the last film. In classic noir form, Ray is introduced after some dialogue by protruding his face from the shadows toward the camera and into violently bright light. The mood is one of uncertainty and despair.
To counteract, or counterbalance, the noir opening, the following scene has country music playing, with a close-up of boots on a desk and a cowboy hat placed beside them. The laughing of the P.I. works out to be a chiasm; he is a cliché at the beginning and the end of the film, sandwiching some very dark humor that is devoid of laughter. Though a major character (arguably the most important one), the P.I. is never given a name. He is the source of both truth and lies, giving Marty true and false evidence of his wife’s affair. The prevalence of photographs and voyeurism in the film feeds the intersubjectivity of the characters and what they believe to be true. In many ways the film is about misunderstandings. One person is mistaken for another, a photograph is altered, a gun is misplaced and misinterpreted, a dream is thought to be reality, and a living man is considered dead. After the early meeting between Marty and the P.I., the camera moves through the “window” separating the office from the bar to reveal that it’s a mirror on the other side. While not the most jaw-dropping of effects, it illustrates both the uncertainty within the film and its voyeuristic theme.
Little effects such as the camera crawling down the length of the bar toward its subject (and going over a sleeping drunk like a speed bump) have led some to conclude that Blood Simple is a style-over-content film. I don’t feel a strong need to spend time rebutting this. Suffice it to say, it seems clear that (a) the content of the film is on par with its style, as this essay hopes to make clear; and (b) style is a very important aspect of the content, since this is in many ways a film about film. Its amalgamation of genres and weight given to the visual image contribute to this.
Not sure what to do with Marty’s recurring vomiting. He always seems to be either throwing up or supressing the urge. Neither he nor the other characters seem to notice what must be a foul stench from the dead fish on his desk, though all the major players enter his office while the fish are there. This more superficial cause for potential puking is usurped by the gravity of death and getting knocked in the groin by Marty’s eloping wife, which seems appropriate. And I suppose that someone is bound to point out the innuendo of emasculation: when Abby kicks Marty where it counts, she also breaks his finger, which is seen in the following scene in a closeup in a splint. From that point, whatever manhood Marty had left is history, along with his marriage.
The significance of the four dead fish is perhaps complex, not sure. They appear when the P.I. is showing Marty altered photos implying a double homicide. Presumably, the fish foreshadow the death of all four main characters, though they are all still alive at this point. Not all four characters die in the end, in the physical sense. The Coens are likely playing with the viewers heads by tying the fish with the characters, and at the same time rejecting what would have been another stylistic cliché.
As usual, the Coens seem to be portraying something moral in this film without making a moral statement. The P.I. accepts Marty’s proposal for a job that’s “not strictly legal,” but tells Marty, “You’re an idiot.” The P.I. can’t bring himself to commit the crime, but instead misleads Marty into paying him for the job, then offs him. As Marty sits there slouching, bleeding to death, the P.I. says, “You look stupid now.” The P.I. associates ignorance with evil, is disgusted, and becomes an administrator of justice. That Ray is not actually dead, we find out a bit later, confirms the dishonesty of the visual image that has already been a theme. In the first instance, the altered photo seemed just fishy enough to have been fake, the audience infers. Marty is fooled, but the audience isn’t sure. When Marty is “killed,” the audience apparently sees it clearly and has no reason to doubt the murder. The viewer is as surprised as Ray to discover Marty gasping for breath later on. This takes the film from being merely a mystery-thriller to something in the category of “a film about film.” The Coens know that their viewers are fluent in the language of film and know cinematic clichés. By deceiving the audience, the Coens are turning the clichés on their head, so to speak. This seems a perfect use of such clichés: make lazy viewers of the audience so that they stop thinking about the possibilities of the story, then show them their laziness.
Once Ray is shown late in the film sitting on a chair with one cowboy-booted leg up on a table, the connection with Marty is clear, along with the implication that Ray will share in Marty’s fate. Abby’s defense, “I haven’t done anythin’ funny” may be honest, but they are precisely the words Marty promised Ray she would utter, and they further tie Ray and Marty’s fates together. Twisted clichés, stupid characters, and a hastiness to violence make Blood Simple a film of blood spilt by simple people who are incapable of seeing the complexity that the viewer is cursed to witness.
The sinister voyeur