Blood Simple

July 12, 2011

Legendary Hollywood movie mogul Harry Cohn used to say that he had a infallible system for predicting the box-office success of his productions.

Cohn would count the number of times his sizable posterior twitched during a screening of his movie. The more his keister moved around, the less chance the film had of catching on with the public—Cohn believed that if his interest was held, his rear end wouldn’t shimmy at all.

Well…that’s how movie moguls get to be legends. But Cohn had a point, after all: When a film really hooks you, you lose yourself to the degree that you forget all about your surroundings.

But I would suggest Cohn’s Law has a contradictory corollary. There are films so good, so thrilling, so endlessly inventive that they physically lift you out of your seat, because of the sheer excitement on the screen and the giddy struggle to keep up with what’s happening.

Submitted for you approval, then: Blood Simple, a new American thriller guaranteed to have you out of your seat as much as you are in it. It is the low-budget baby of two Minneapolis brothers, both under 30: director Joel Coen and producer Ethan Coen (they wrote the convoluted screenplay together). Made for just over a million dollars—roughly the budget for finger food on an average studio production—the film breathes self-confidence in every delicious twist and turn.

It’s a modern film noir, located just down the unwholesome road from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, but laced through with a diabolically black sense of humor. The basic situation is classically pulpish: Bored woman wants out of her humdrum life, takes up with the bartender of her husband’s saloon. Husband finds out, hires a private eye to kill the adulterers.

It would be unthinkable to elaborate on any more of the plot, since, as Alfred Hitchcock put it regarding Psycho, the audience is programmed to go nuts.

The players are either unknown or anonymously recognizable as character actors. Frances McDormand, the restless wife, looks like a neglected, gone-to-seed Jessica Lange, tired of a beer diet and hungry for an end to her marriage. John Getz, the hapless bartender, is usually the last one to find out about the plot twists, and finds himself in a most uncomfortable encounter with a corpse in the middle of a wide Texas farm field.

Dan Hedaya, the husband, is a familiar character actor who looks like a refugee from the Ape House doing an impression of Richard Nixon.

The real stars of the show are the filmmakers, however; every sly turn of plot or phrase, every deliberately stylish camera movement suggests an abundance of cinematic intelligence.

The fact the film is violent, hip, and inspired by popular art may lead to a backlash against its initial critical success. (Already Stanley Kauffman did a stuffy put-down of it in The New Republic.) And for those who like their art with respectable trappings, Blood Simple will seem confounding. But for the rest of us, this dazzlingly disreputable trip to the other side of the tracks may well look like the most exciting movie of the year.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

I saw it first at the Seattle International Film Festival in May 1984, a pretty potent full-house night. I would say that it never quite gets to you the way it gets to you the first time you see it, but as debut movies go, it’s a corker. Apologies to Hedaya; he’s good in this. My favorite line is one that passes through my mind at regular intervals, usually for no reason; it’s M. Emmet Walsh, gazing at Hedaya: “You look stupid now.” It has everything to do with the line reading.