Coens’ guilt trip

BLOOD SIMPLE, directed by Joel Coen, written by Joel and Ethan Coen, produced by Ethan Coen, with John Getz, Frances.


BLOOD SIMPLE, directed by Joel Coen, written by Joel and Ethan Coen, produced by Ethan Coen, with John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh and Samm-Art Williams. 97 minutes. An Odeon release. Opens Friday (July 14). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 66. Rating: NNNNN

Pity the poor Coen Brothers. Somehow, they’ve been overrated and under-appreciated at the same time. All because they spike violence with humour, which turned out to be the house cocktail for the end of the American century.

Indie film fans bought into the Coen world straight from Blood Simple in 1984, and kept buying anytime the brothers stuck to the formula. When they strayed, most notoriously in The Hudsucker Proxy, the bottom fell out of their market. When they perfected the formula in Fargo, it was Oscars all around.

That’s why it’s crucial to see Blood Simple again.

This must be the only director’s cut in history that’s actually shorter than the original. As a delightful old fart says in the very Coen preface to the re-release, “The boring parts have been taken out” and the film has been “digitally swabbed.”

All the better to watch the noir unfold. Having spent way too much time hanging around their Evil Dead mentor, Sam Raimi, the Coens dreamed up this story of blood and betrayal and set it far from their stomping grounds, in Texas.

Dan Hedaya, looking more dimpled and bilious than ever, plays a rich bar owner. Frances McDormand, fresh from Yale drama school, plays his wife. She’s fooling around with his bartender (John Getz), which prompts hubby to have her murdered. But the greasy detective hired to do it gets a better idea, and all hell breaks loose.


Classic noir

It’s a classic noir plot, operating from the time-tested principle that most people who murder make stupid mistakes. What makes it a classic Coen plot is the glee the film takes in their stupidity.

The Coens’ fatal flaw has always been their chilly misanthropy. The only character they ever created that they let their film respect is Marge in Fargo, and even she’s a doofus.

It’s no surprise that they call Blood Simple a “hayseed movie,” the first of a hayseed trilogy that continues with Raising Arizona and the forthcoming O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sure, hayseed is a joke, but it’s a sour one.

The Coens’ jokes are actually the least interesting part of their filmmaking. They’re cheap. Where Blood Simple really soars is in its shadows. This movie depends on careful plotting and clever visuals, but in the end it’s a triumph of mood. And that mood gets made in the details.

From a filmmaking perspective, the most interesting thing about Blood Simple is that they shot for eight weeks. Most indie first features shoot five weeks, tops. In Canada, even directors with two or three features under their belt have to fight to get six.


Huge payoffs

But the Coens (Joel directs, Ethan produces, both write) storyboarded the entire film, then spent the shoot getting the details right. This is a very contained film, as if they’d decided to limit what they put in the frame, to keep it manageable. Even the flares of exuberance they cooked up with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld — the tracking shot along the bar is like fish bait to film students — still serve the movie’s visual economy.

But within those limits, they get huge payoffs from the smallest details. There’s a fly on M. Emmet Walsh’s face in two different scenes, feeding on his sweat. There’s a bug zapper that punctuates another scene, frying bugs like gunshots.

These bits of business darken the mood. They also amplify the Coens’ crime-and-self-punishment theme. Blood Simple’s second act is an aria of tightening guilt, underlined by typical Coen jokes. A recurring “Employees must wash hands” sign in the husband’s bar nudges the story toward some kind of Texas Macbeth.

Blood Simple gets its title from Dashiell Hammett and its plot from pulp fiction, but the yawning dread that makes this movie hold up after 15 years is all Hitchcock.

And the Coens know it. They tip their hat to Hitch with a cigarette lighter bit lifted from Strangers On A Train, a climax filched from Rear Window, even a descent into dream right out of Vertigo.

The characters in Blood Simple move a touch slower than normal, and not because it’s Texas. The Coens give their movie the smell of the inevitable. It’s as if these people are acting out roles in a morality play. They know what they’re headed for.

That sense of fate betrays the Coens’ only major weakness — they write their characters like chess pieces. But it also lifts the film into far more interesting territory than the jokey shocks suggest.

In a crowded field, this is one of the best-ever American movies about guilt.

cameronb@nowtoronto.com

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