It’s always weird going back to the beginning. So many great directors seem to arrive fully-formed, but that’s usually because by the time they break out and hit the spotlight, they already have a solid handful of films under their belt. Going back to their debuts can be disorienting, like seeing a picture of your parents before you were born. There’s enough there for you to know what you’re looking at, but it’s not quite right – they aren’t quite themselves yet.
So it is with Blood Simple, our first glimpse into the strange world of Joel and Ethan Coen. Judging by the inimitable triple-threat of their following three films – Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink – you would have thought the Coens had left the womb already knowing exactly how to translate their innate Coen-ness on to the screen. But centuries ago – in 1984 – Blood Simple came out to fairly little fanfare, received as a competently-made, but fairly pedestrian thriller. It definitely didn’t set the world alight like John Goodman in a hotel corridor.
With that said, there’s still plenty to unpack as the film heads back to cinemas in its 33rd year. Much of Blood Simple sets it awkwardly apart from the Coen canon – its tacky, TV-movie score and its disarming lack of attention to finer detail – to name a couple. But there’s one crucial component already starkly present when you dig in close enough: a uniting feature which would go on to define almost every movie the brothers have made since.
I mean, apart from Frances McDormand. Or John Goodman.
Sitting at the heart of Blood Simple, and almost any other Coen feature you can name, are the self-made traps and cycles the characters get themselves stuck in with no clear route of escape.
Like any good feature-length slice of Coen, Blood Simple kicks off with a relatively simple premise: Marty (Dan Hedaya), a seedy bar owner, pays a private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his cheating wife Abby (McDormand) and her lover Ray (John Getz). Easy enough, right?
From there, thanks to a heady cocktail of selfishness, error, misunderstanding and divine intervention, the narrative twists and contorts into surprising shapes, by turns horrifying and darkly hilarious.
When the unnamed detective decides to double-cross Marty, shooting him and stealing the money while leaving a weapon which frames Abby at the scene, it’s the first in a series of terrible, short-sighted decisions made by a group of characters who never have access to the full picture. All four key players end up trapped in a comically escalating cycle of paranoia and violence because of their own misguided actions.
As the Coens spend the film getting to grips with their filmmaking fundamentals before your eyes – their editing and camerawork is rough but you can see the burgeoning talent already – the cast get to have a lot of fun with this exercise in futility. Especially so for McDormand, who gives a lively, childlike performance that gradually gives way to something harder and colder, but too late to help Abby see sense. Walsh’s detective also has the honour of being the first in what would become a very long line of Southern kooks that appear on the edges of a Coen movie and threaten to break out of the screen entirely with their magnetic weirdness.
Though the brothers would go on to explore and master more styles and genres than a dozen lesser directors could manage in a lifetime, you can see at the core of Blood Simple the theme that would define their whole filmography: incompetence. Who would have thought it would be such ripe, ample ground on which to grow a whole career?
You can see a similar cycle of stupid mistakes begetting violence in Fargo (1996), this time observed from the outside in horror and disbelief by McDormand’s iconic, homely police chief Marge Gunderson. The selfish shortsightedness of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) brings the inescapable wrath of Anton Chigurh (Javier Barden) to Texas in No Country for Old Men (2007). Perhaps most farcically, the sheer incompetence of the cadre of spies and civilians in Burn After Reading (2008) leads to a sickeningly, hilariously high body count.
It’s not just cycles of violence and death that the Coens would go on to deal with. In his pursuit for the Great American Play, the eponymous Barton Fink (John Turturro) blinds himself to the woes and tales of his peers, forever limiting his potential as a storyteller. O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s Everett McGill (George Clooney) is physically and spiritually separated from his loved ones by his lack of humility and empathy. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, natch) is an asshole the world keeps stomping underfoot because he deserves it.
But not everyone is unhappy in their traps. With their most iconic character, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) of The Big Lebowski, the Coens show us a person who is introduced to a whole universe of weirdness, conspiracy and possibility, but is more than happy to return to the shelter of his beloved bowling alley and his White Russians by the time the movie closes.
And clearly we’re happy diving into these cycles too, because audiences keep rushing back to see the Coens’ latest offerings. Even rarer, critics continue to pour on the adulation more than 30 years into their storied career.
Often, it takes something drastic, horrific or world-changing to break the circle once you’re trapped inside. This much is clear from the dire consequences wrought on such hopeful suckers in the brothers’ work. So, if we’re going to stay trapped together, it’s definitely worth giving Blood Simple a watch to see where the beautiful, brilliant cycle of incompetence and greed began.