Blood Simple (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1984) marks the first major directorial effort from the Coen Brothers, and while it doesn’t boast the charismatic camera-work and the over-the-top characters found in a lot of their later work, it does employ a spectacular script the Coen’s are now typically known for. It is tidy and concise, while managing to be riveting and mysterious almost from top to bottom. It builds upon a concept that is straightforward and primal, with each scene resembling a masterful sequence – with a distinct beginning, middle, and end – that effectively works as a short film unto itself. In other words, each segment starts off rather slow as it settles in, builds to an ironic twist at the midpoint, and then aggressively moves to an impactful climax which is often another ironic twist. The majority of the scenes operate in this keen way, and the effect is mesmerizing, especially during the potent first half.
The second half starts off a little muddled, but once the rhythms take hold, that mesmerizing grip arises again, and the film is able to build to a thrilling finale that is unexpected and memorable. Mirroring the rhythms of the script are the sharp waves of violence, which are used sparingly, but when used, they are powerful. This restrained approach echoes through all of the technical elements, complimenting the material quite nicely. This, of course, includes the photography, which is a whole lot less eccentric compared to a lot of other film noirs. This is a surprising revelation considering who’s at the helm, but it is a good surprise, because while Blood Simple is dark and shadowy like many other film noirs, it remains grounded in a way that adds to the suspense. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any memorable images, quite the contrary. In fact, because the film is so economical in its approach, almost all of the images captured are vivid and serve both the context and the subtext.
One other tangible difference between the debut effort from the Coen Brothers and their later work are the performances. Here, they tend not to be as outlandish or bold. Sure, there’s some quirk here and there, and the characters are well drawn, but the tics and tacks are minimal compared to the audacious characterizations found in their later projects. Again, this minimalist, restrained approach tends to benefit the material, and the resulting performances are full of intensity and strength.
In general, I would say that Blood Simple is a riveting thriller with themes that are as murky as the shadows in which these deadly characters lurk. On the surface, the film works exceptionally well and is gripping throughout. Digging underneath the surface, we’ll find the familiar-Coen-Brother-philosophical-touch that offers the audience something to chew over and to interpret long after the blood has dried.