Coen Bros: Blood Simple

THE HERO’S JOURNEY: In the opening montage of Blood Simple, a voice-over from reptilian slimeball Loren Visser tells us “What I know about is Texas — and down here, you’re on your own.” That line sums up Blood Simple and, in a certain way, the whole of the Coen Bros’ work. When you watch a Coen Bros’ movie, oftentimes you’re on your own — they’re not going to tell you who to root for, they’re not going to be your guide, they’re not going to hold your hand or flatter your prejudices or spoon-feed you plot.

The idea that the Coens would choose for their first feature to create a story without a protagonist is remarkable in and of itself. That Blood Simple is riveting cinema regardless is a testament to the sheer raw talent these guys had, lo these 23 years ago. Just think! They’d never made a movie before, and yet Blood Simple positively overflows with precise, concise filmmaking, stark, innovative scene construction and bravura visual dynamism.

Marty, the angry Greek bar owner, is the protagonist in the classical sense of the word — he starts the events of the story into motion by hiring Visser to kill his wife and lover. But then Marty dies about half-way through the movie. Ray, the male half of the illicit-lover couple, makes another likely protagonist, but he is off-screen for most of the first half of the movie, says little while he is on screen, and then dies before the climactic shoot-out. Visser, by far the most memorable character, is in perhaps a third of the movie and is, if anything, the antagonist. Abby, Marty’s wife, spends most of the movie not having the slightest idea what, if anything, is going on.

(In fact, due to the jigsaw-nature of the narrative, no one character ever knows completely what is going on. Ray knows the most, for a brief period of time, before getting shot to death.)

(He also has the most “heroic” sequence of the movie, the sequence where he tries to get rid of what he thinks is Marty’s dead body. The Coen’s idea of heroism is showing a guy who doesn’t have the slightest idea how to mop up a simple spill [even though he works in a bar], and who considers running Marty over in the road and beating him to death with a shovel before cowardly deciding to bury him alive and screaming.)

In most movies in this genre, the young lovers would be the protagonists. But the Coens give us a couple of real losers at the center of their story. Ray is fatally taciturn, suspicious, hard-headed, weaselly and staggeringly dumb, whereas Abby is neurotic, chatty, spoiled and equally staggeringly dumb. The Coens refuse to give them any positive qualities. They sit resolutely outside their characters, putting them through their paces and silently bearing witness to their destinies with a coldness rivaled only by Kubrick.

THE LITTLE GUY: The Coens’ movies all have a subtext of social mobility. Here, “the rich guy” (let’s call him “Capital”) is Marty, the seething, greasy Greek bar owner. Marty rules his world with an iron fist, but is also short-sighted and too angry for his own good. He thinks his money and station will allow him to get away with murder.

He’s married to Abby, although one cannot think of a good reason why. Her youth suggests she was a trophy wife, but she’s rather plain, has no noticeable education or talents. It’s safe to assume she married young for the sake of security and has come to regret her decision, and is now looking for someone else to take care of her, even if that means a step down the social ladder. Abby, of course, finishes her arc believing she has killed Marty — triumphing over Capital. The final irony of the movie is that she hasn’t killed him at all — she’s only killed Visser, a character who is more or less her equal, a lower-class man trying to get along by taking money from Marty.

Ray, Abby’s lover, works for Marty, and is looking to “rob” him of one of his assets. This may or may not raise his social standing, but it at least gives him some measure of revenge on Capital. It’s also worth noting that when Ray comes to Marty’s bar, it’s not for revenge but for his back pay — what Marty “owes” him. Ray may or may not feel that his theft of Abby is adequate compensation (although it would explain the look on his facewhen he thinks she’s been playing him for a sap on her way somewhere else) but he certainly separates his love for her from Marty’s debt to him. (In fact, he takes pains not to take Abby for granted, even after they’ve slept together — much to his chagrin.)

Visser I don’t think seeks to raise his station — he’s happy being a snake — he just wants “a little bit of money” (as Marge puts it in Fargo). (The idea that Visser would say he’s willing to murder two people for $10,000, even in 1984 dollars, is startling — was life that bad in Texas?) Visser says in the opening narration that he doesn’t care if you’re “Man of the Year,” you’re all alone in this society. Ironically, his prized personalized lighter is engraved “ELKS MAN OF THE YEAR” on the side. (Later on, Jeffrey Lebowski, another paragon of wealthy hypocrisy and corruption, would have a Time “Man of the Year” mirror in his trophy room — an odd choice, given that it is a novelty gift and not a true award.) All this being said, Visser hates Marty more than anyone in the movie. He smiles and laughs and wheezes as beetles and flies crawl on his face in Marty’s presence, but once he has his money he shoots Marty cold dead and then snarls “Who looks stupid now?” implying that Marty’s pre-eminence as society kingpin is something Visser has had quite enough of in this lifetime, thank you very much.

Meurice, the African-American bartender, is the only character who seems happy where he is — he knows Marty is an asshole, but he respects him as a businessman and even defends him to Ray. He even takes time to explain to a customer what his game-plan is — as a man who doesn’t fit in his surroundings, he’s biding his time, taking advantage of whatever benefits his incongruity provides to make a life for himself. (Later on, we see evidence that he’s renovating his house — either he’s preparing to flip it for a profit or else he’s planning on settling down.)

MUSIC: The primary musical conflict in Blood Simple is between country and soul (by which I refer to popular musical genres, although that’s certainly an interesting thematic juxtaposition). Meurice interrupts Patsy Cline to play the Four Tops on the bar jukebox — “The Same Old Song” is used three times in the movie, suggesting that the fatal mistakes the characters make are all part of an unstoppable continuum. The Four Tops also are a symbol of Meurice’s ability to exist within a corrupt system — Marty may be an asshole, but he provides swell digs for Meurice to entertain lady friends.

Mexican songs drift in from the apartment below Abby’s, suggesting “the world outside,” the people blithely going on about their lives, unaware of the turmoil and strife going on in their building. (The notion of the main characters having some sort of secret, higher knowledge while the rest of the world stumbles on will be brought up again in The Man Who Wasn’t There.)

THE MELTING POT: Marty, the controlling force, is Greek-American. Visser, the scumbag, is a drawling native white-trash Texan (in a VW bug, just to throw us off the scent). Ray and Abby, it seems, are also white southerners, although Ray has spent time in the army, so it is presumed he’s spent time outside of Texas (although not necessarily). Meurice, the only well-adjusted character in the movie, is African-American and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. Abby rents her new apartment from Mexicans, underscoring her shift to a new life “outside” the system.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: As far as we can tell, there are no law-enforcement agencies in Texas. Visser and Ray both worry about “getting caught” for the murder of Marty, but we never see a single police car or uniform. Law is abstracted to the point of invisibility.

IS JUDGMENT AT HAND? In keeping with the “you’re on your own” philosophy of the movie, there is little reference to God in Blood Simple. However, it’s worth noting that, as Ray drives down the highway with Marty in his back seat, he listens to a radio commentator talk about “The Jupiter Effect,” the end-of-the-world scenario popular in the 80s, a kind of precursor to the Y2K bug. The free-floating world-ending anxiety of the Reagan era comes into sharper focus in Raising Arizona.

MAGIC: In all Coen movies (with the exception of Fargo), the plot cannot get by on literalism alone — magic must be introduced at some point. Here, they create a bunch of fake suspense by having Abby dream about Marty showing up in her new apartment. Her dreaming of Marty is one thing, but she dreams of details she shouldn’t really know anything about.

ECHOES: In addition to the already mentioned, Visser’s blue VW bug later turns up driven by Jon Polito in The Big Lebowski.

John Getz as Ray bears a strong resemblance to Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, complete with laconic remoteness and dangling cigarette. (In Man, Ed is, of course, married to Frances McDormand, playing another version of Abby, a not-terribly-bright woman who feels stuck in a loveless marriage. In Man, of course, she’s on her way out of the marriage in order to raise her station, not lower it.)

Visser tells Marty a bawdy story about an acquaintance who broke both of his hands. This unfortunate man’s name is Creighton, a name that would later turn up as a major character in The Man Who Wasn’t There. There is no evidence to suggest they are the same person.

Like Tom Regan in Miller’s Crossing, Visser takes great pride in his hat, and seemingly cannot do his job without it. Even after getting stabbed through the hand, he takes time to pick up his hat and put it on before he goes to take care of Abby.

The 20-minute set-piece at the center of Blood Simple will be played out in shorter form in Fargo — the victim in the back seat of the car, the desolate roadside, the suspense beat of the killer almost being caught by an oncoming vehicle.

(Marty’s blood becomes an important symbol in Blood Simple — just as Marty tries to get rid of his problems only to have them get much larger as a result of his actions, Ray tries to get rid of Marty’s blood but the stain only gets bigger — it’s like the freakin’ bathtub ring in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Ray tries to mop up the blood off the office floor but only makes the stain bigger. Marty bleeds so much into Ray’s back seat that the blood is still seeping upwards a day later. He vomits blood onto Ray’s shoulder, and, in Abby’s dream, he vomits blood onto her floor. Marty, we would say, won’t stop bleeding.)

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32 Responses to “Coen Bros: Blood Simple”
  1. zodmicrobe says:

    Fantastic post.

    I’m directing my first (low budg) feature in February, and one of the movies my DP and producer and I are going to be watching is BLOOD SIMPLE. I watched it for the first time in years last week after picking up the (out of print) DVD at Amoeba. It truly gets better every time I watch it. Marty’s line to Abby “you left your weapon” gives me the chills every time.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    I’ve seen all these movies, but now it feels like I need a Coen marathon to refresh my memory. Could be interesting (if not jarring) seeing them back to back.

    • Todd says:

      As someone who just recently did watch them all back-to-back, I will tell you that not until Intolerable Cruelty is it jarring.

      • greyaenigma says:

        OK, that one I have not seen. I think I never quite accepted that it’s a Coen brothers film.

        • craigjclark says:

          In a kind of twisted way it is, though. It’s a supremely cynical film and if the copious profanity (which is in the published script) had been left intact, I’m sure that would have been more readily apparent to audiences.

          I’m not sure when the decision was made to soften the language or by who, but I expect it was probably an attempt to make the film more palatable to women, the target audience for romantic comedies. Of course, nothing can disguise the fact that Intolerable Cruelty is an avowed anti-romantic comedy, even in its neutered form.

      • yetra says:

        I like to pretend that one never happened.

  3. craigjclark says:

    I haven’t watched this movie in several years — not since the theatrical re-release that preceded the DVD. I recall being mildly irritated that they had chosen to tinker with the film and that the revised cut was the only one available on DVD. Perhaps I’ll have a different opinion of it now that time has passed and I won’t get so hung up on the scenes that were removed.

    • Todd says:

      I haven’t seen the “original” cut in many years, but I can’t say I miss it — the currently-available DVD seems like a huge improvement to me. Plus the sound mix is incredible.

      • craigjclark says:

        I don’t doubt that the film sounds better than it ever did before, but Meurice, for one, loses some pivotal scenes that rounded out his character. One gets the impression that if they could have cut him out entirely, the Coens might have done just that.

        • Todd says:

          It sounds odd now to say it, but I never saw the point of Meurice until I saw the new cut. Whatever they did to the movie (and I’m told they re-arranged things more than they cut things), they sharpened the overall narrative impact.

          • craigjclark says:

            One would have to look at the two versions side by side to determine exactly how they differ. (Or I suppose one could compare the DVD to the screenplay that was published in the late ’80s.)

  4. rjwhite says:

    Is it safe to assume you’re going through the whole group?

  5. curt_holman says:

    “The idea that the Coens would choose for their first feature to create a story without a protagonist is remarkable in and of itself.”

    Absolutely. Does that make Blood Simple unique in the film noir/gritty crime genre, by having neither heroes nor antiheroes — no one you’re supposed to identify with one way or another — but just the ricochets of cause and effect?

    • Todd says:

      Does that make Blood Simple unique in the film noir/gritty crime genre, by having neither heroes nor antiheroes — no one you’re supposed to identify with one way or another — but just the ricochets of cause and effect?

      Gee, I don’t know. The Coens, it has been noted, in their noirs, are responding not so much to film noir but to its literary antecedents, Hammett and Chandler and Cain, which I have not read. Do The Glass Key or Red Harvest have protagonists?

      • Anonymous says:

        I read Red Harvest last year and, yes, it has a protagonist.

        • Anonymous says:

          As an addendum:

          The plot of Red Harvest is the inspiration for Yojimbo by Kurosawa and starring the kick ass Toshirō Mifune. And then that movie was the (illegal) basis for A Fistful of Dollars.

          • curt_holman says:

            Yo! Jimbo!

            Now, was Bruce Willis’ ‘Last Man Standing’ a literal remake of Yojimbo, or just an “homage?”

            I don’t remember the tough guy protagonist in Red Harvest playing the rival gangs against each other quite as viciously as in any of those works, but I don’t remember it very clearly.

    • I’d say Night & the City does something similar.

  6. planettom says:

    I’ve been wanting to watch/listen to the commentary track on the BLOOD SIMPLE DVD, the one done by a fake film critic (actually frequent mockumentary actor Jim Piddock).

    • curt_holman says:

      Do it and report back to us.

    • craigjclark says:

      I listened to that track when the DVD first came out. It’s so dense that it made me wonder how much of it was written in advance and how much was extemporized on the spot. I particularly liked the way that long after the commentator has ceased referring to what’s happening on screen, he still reacts audibly when something particularly gruesome happens.

      That said, it’s not a commentary that I see myself listening to again anytime soon.

  7. curt_holman says:

    “”The Same Old Song” is used three times in the movie, suggesting that the fatal mistakes the characters make are all part of an unstoppable continuum.”

    Hey, dude, I gave your Blood Simple analysis a shout-out in this (non-LJ) blog entry: “Old-timey music:” The music of the Coen Brothers’ movies.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for the nod. As it happens, the use of “The Same Old Song” is new to US audiences with the re-released DVD. There was a rights problem with the song in 1984 and another one was used for the initial release.

      • curt_holman says:

        Interesting: I videotaped it on a syndicated TV broadcast long ago (probably before the 1990s), and “The Same Old Song” is present.

      • planettom says:

        As I understand it, “Same Old Song” was in the American theatrical release, but when it went to videotape it was changed to Neil Diamond’s “I’m a believer.”

        I could have sworn there was another change as well though. When Meurice stops the jukebox to play his own song, I was thinking that in the videotape version it was “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”

  8. teamwak says:

    Great stuff 🙂

    I saw this as a kid, and I can still remember the jump it gave me when the newspaper hits the door!

    I will be interested to hear your views on Intolerable Cruelty. I film I personally love, but seem to divide the Cohens fans big time 🙂

  9. yetra says:

    Wonderful to read this right before I see No Country for Old Men on sunday. I love when your film breakdowns fit perfectly with my upcoming viewings. 🙂

    Amusing that you went with a Dr. Seuss reference rather than Macbeth for the blood stain.

    A personal Blood Simple anecdote:

    Many years ago, I was on the verge of getting, um, a bit intimate with a young man who I’d just met and knew little about. I paused the action and insisted on getting to know him better first, and started quizzing him on his cultural interests.

    His first answer (I really like the Dave Matthews Band) nearly put an end to the whole affair. But he was awfully cute and sweet, so I gave him one more shot.

    Sensing the precariousness of the situation, he tentatively mentioned quite enjoying Blood Simple (which had just had a recent art house revival).

    Ah, exactly the right answer to allow me to proceed with my self respect intact. Ended up staying with him for three years. 🙂