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.
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The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) is one of the few movies in my collection that I have never seen before (it was a gift from my bro-in-law. Thanks!) And while the cover art and advertisements suggest a suspenseful thriller, after viewing I’d actually describe the movie as more of a minimalist drama than an intricate thriller. Let’s just say it was sexier than it was exciting, and more restrained than it was wild. Mirroring these characteristics is the icy melancholic mood of the film, which creates a persistent feeling of isolation, paranoia, and loneliness. Basically, “a place without love.”
All of which is personified by the closed-off protagonist, played here by George Clooney, who is an aging, covert arms dealer looking to retire after one more dangerous assignment. With a leering camera perspective that creates the aura of being followed, Clooney’s character goes about his job in a methodical, deft manner. Along the way, he starts seeing a prostitute (are they this gorgeous in real life?), whom he predictably grows warmer with throughout, despite his distrust and paranoia. He finishes the assignment practically without a hitch, until the final sequences, where all hell breaks loose and an ironic twist of fate is climatically revealed.
One of the inherent problems with this movie, although it’s not a problem so much as it is a characteristic, is the movie’s closed-off nature and prickly tone. The result is a movie that is hard to embrace fully, and a protagonist that is difficult to gather a fair impression of. For example, I’m not sure what Clooney’s character actually does or why he chose to do it. Is he an arm’s dealer? Is he a private contract killer? Is he an undercover government operative? I don’t know. All’s I do know is that it’s a dangerous job and he’s really good at it. Which leads me to wonder if The American is at all a statement regarding the United States’ own foreign policy. If so, it seems to be suggesting that we, the American citizens, are a detached, paranoid, uninterested group of folks when it comes to what we do around the world.
Political quandaries aside, one of the more interesting thematic elements in The American is that Clooney’s character is referred to as “Mr. Butterfly” at least three times. The first utterance reminded me instantly of the movie M. Butterfly (David Cronenberg, 1993), which contains similar themes of betrayal and secrecy. Whether there’s supposed to be or is a direct correlation between the two, I’m not sure. Either way, “Mr. Butterfly” works as a fitting metaphor for Clooney’s character, one that wades in a cocoon-like, closed-off nature, until finally he has the desire to shed that shell and break free. This echoes the sequence during the opening credits, where Clooney’s existence is portrayed as a long dark tunnel with only a shred of light at the end of it. The question is, will he get to the light or will it be too late?
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