‘Blood Simple’ – The Coen Bros. begin on Max and Criterion Channel

There’s a complicated web of murder and betrayal in a small Texas town in Blood Simple (1984), the assured debut feature from Joel and Ethan Coen (Ethan has sole director credit on screen but is was a collaborative effort). It all springs from an adulterous affair between a terse barman and the lonely, frustrated wife of his pathologically vengeful boss.

It opens on the drawling commentary of a sweaty, sleazy private eye in a white cowboy hat and cheap leisure suit (M. Emmett Walsh) who keeps up a steady stream of colorful stories and hard-boiled asides as he spies on Abby (Frances McDormand) for jealous bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya), When he catches her in a hotel tryst with Ray (John Getz), it’s not long before murder is on the table and the P.I. is amenable “if the pay’s right.” Bodies are shot, stabbed, dragged, and buried, blood is spilled and wiped up, evidence planted, swiped, and swapped, and nobody really knows what the story is. Except the audience, and we’re generally a beat behind.

That’s part of the charge of Blood Simple., which channels Dashiell Hammett right in the title. Hammett coined the phrase in “Red Harvest” to describe the psychological suckerpunch of murder but it carries a different meaning here. It’s not about panicked retribution or situational bloodlust. With a cast of five meaningful characters—Samm-Art Williams completes the quintet as Meurice, a bartender outside of the sordid story at the center but nonetheless pulled into the mess—the Coens plot a series of crisscrossing trajectories that give everyone with just enough information to make wrong assumptions and bad decisions. It’s a classic noir convention that the Coens twist with a witty irony that leaves the survivors no wiser at the end of the ordeal.

And then there are the simple pleasure of their play with genre. Hedaya has the hangdog face of a Damon Runyon mug after a few years on the lam sweating it out in the Texas desert, and Walsh plays the smarmy, low-rent dick with an empty grin, a folksy front, and no moral compunctions, a character at once iconic and unique. The voyeurism of his window-peeping surveillance is echoed through the film with Barry Sonnenfeld’s prowling camera, constantly creeping up on scenes with the ominous suggestion of prying eyes, and the black-and-white palette of classic noir becomes a chiaroscuro mix of barroom neon and yellow-white headlights cutting through the Texas desert night.



Scenes are punctuated with witty flourishes, from a travelling shot hopping over a passed-out drunk as is glides down the bar to an electric bug zapper that crackles like a dramatic rimshot to Marty’s barked out threats, that serve the scene rather than distract from it. The stylistic invention of the Coens impresses without descending into showboating and they understand the value of silence and stillness in setting a scene or creating suspense.

Blood Simple essentially created the neo-noir aesthetic of the late eighties and early nineties by taking the pulp crime thriller out of the night in the city and dropping it in the open spaces and desert towns of the southwest. Just as essentially, it launched a pair of filmmakers who would team up for some the most memorable films of the last few decades: Miller’s Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), and A Serious Man (2009) among them.

It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and best director and male lead (for M. Emmet Walsh) at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Rated R

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Blood Simple (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Blood Simple [Blu-ray]
Blood Simple (The Criterion Collection) [4K UHD + Blu-ray]
Blood Simple (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Blood Simple [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD releases present the Coens’ preferred “Director’s Cut,” which they released to theaters and home video in 1998, plus interviews with the filmmakers (conducted by Dave Eggers), actors Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh, composer Carter Burwell, and sound mixer Skip Lievsay, and the 70-minute “Shooting Blood Simple,” which is a kind of a select commentary by Barry Sonnenfeld and Joel and Ethan Coen talking through scenes with the visual assist of a Telestrator.

Earlier DVD and Blu-ray releases features a jokey commentary track featuring a mock intellectual offering up the most ridiculous production “facts” and silly cinematic observations (scripted by the Coens).

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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