A film ought to be judged, says Roger Ebert, not by its ranking in the master list stretching from Citizen Kane to Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie but by how well it accomplishes the task it sets itself. By this measure, have the Coen Brothers ever bested their debut feature, Blood Simple? The 1984 film, which screens at the Walker Art Center on September 18 as the premiere entry in the Walker’s Coen career retrospective, pulls the viewer down a slippery slope right along with its characters. We awaken to the increasing horror of their situation at the same sickening rate as they do themselves.
The film begins with an adulterous encounter between bartender Ray (John Getz) and his boss’s wife Abby (Frances McDormand, who married Joel Coen the year Blood Simple was released). Abby’s jealous husband Julian (Dan Hedaya) hires a venal P.I. (M. Emmet Walsh) to do the pair in. The P.I. comes up with what he judges to be a better plan, and before long each one of the four find themselves with blood on their hands. In the end, two characters remain to face each other in a fatal showdown that unfolds in slow motion, like a chess match where each party is determined to run out the timer.
I’m planning to watch and review each of the Coens’ films in time for their respective appearances at the Walker; there are several that I’ve never seen, but my general impression is that the Gopher State natives—who write and direct as a team—often let their flair for style get the better of them. In my favorites among the Coen films I have seen, the brothers create strong characters and then stand back to let them breathe (or, as the case may be, choke on their own blood). Blood Simple, which all too quickly gave way to the goofy-for-goofy’s-sake Raising Arizona, stands with Fargo as a prime example of how well this approach can work.
Blood Simple isn’t nearly as simple as it initially seems. The plot is precisely mapped, and shot after shot features subtly deployed filmic devices that serve to twist the knife. Scenes spill from one to another so gracefully that we forget to miss the traditional establishing shots, and hoary tricks like false scares, slow motion, and dream sequences are used with such restraint that you hardly even notice them as your attention stays glued to the galloping plot.
In a town without a proper revival house—save, perhaps, the new and very welcome Trylon microcinema—the Walker performs a tremendous service in presenting classics like Blood Simple on a big screen. Don’t miss it. The other Coen films? Let me get back to you on those.
Jay Gabler (email@example.com) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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