Editor’s note: “Blood Simple,” the feature debut of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen opens Friday at the Nuart with a new 4k restoration from the original 35 mm negative that was supervised and approved by the Coen brothers, along with director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld. This is The Times’ Feb. 28, 1985, review.
“Blood Simple” begins with what could easily be “Paris, Texas” outtakes. As one stark, limitless vista succeeds another, we hear the familiar drawling voice of character actor M. Emmet Walsh, telling us that he doesn’t care “who you are … the Pope or the President … something can always go wrong. What I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own.”
Cut to a couple driving in the rain. The woman (Frances McDormand) has decided to leave her hot-tempered, jealous husband (Dan Hedaya). The man (John Getz), a bartender at Hedaya’s roadhouse near Austin, has offered to drive her to Houston. But mutual attraction detours them to the nearest motel, where Walsh, playing a private detective in Hedaya’s hire, shoots the usual compromising photos.
Joel and Ethan Coen — Joel directs, Ethan produces and they co-write — take us deep into the heart of James M. Cain territory, Texas-style, where crimes of passion tend to take on larger-than-life and therefore often comic proportions. Indeed, Hedaya is so enraged at Walsh’s evidence that he won’t be satisfied with anything less than having the adulterers bumped off — paying Walsh 10 grand to do the job.
This is when the fun, bloody as it most assuredly is, begins in earnest. That Walsh has a plan of his own inadvertently triggers a chain of increasingly disastrous wrong assumptions, and “Blood Simple” becomes a dazzling comedie noire, a dynamic, virtuoso display by a couple of talented fledgling filmmakers who give the conventions of the genre such a thorough workout that the result is a movie that’s fresh and exhilarating (in the way that Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Diva” was). It’s not for nothing that the film signs off with the Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song (but With a Different Beat),” a perfect summary of what the brothers Coen have attempted and accomplished. “Blood Simple,” taking its title from a Dashiell Hammett slang expression for the state of fear and confusion following the commission of murder, could turn out to be this year’s “Stranger Than Paradise.” It isn’t as original as Jim Jarmusch’s film, but shares a similarly absurdist view of the workings of fate.
For all its fun, “Blood Simple,” thankfully, isn’t camp or burlesque. Its humor grows out of the discrepancy between what its people think is going on and what we know — or think we know — about what’s going on. This means that the Coens’ actors — including Samm-Art Williams as another of Hedaya’s bartenders — must keep absolutely straight faces as they pursue courses as misguided as they are desperate. The Coens have cast so carefully that each member of their lethal eternal triangle has some slightly askew facial feature that keeps him or her from handsomeness or beauty.
The Coens likewise keep their assurance from seeming merely mechanical or contrived, thanks to their energy and imagination. Their people are just ordinary folks, with whom we’d be wiser to identify rather than patronize as they rush toward fates waiting to trip them up. It’s this collision-course perception that makes “Blood Simple” such a gratifying, corrosive human comedy.
MPAA rating: R, for violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles