News

The Coen Brothers' Blood Simple Boldly Announced One of the Most Original Filmmaking Duos Ever

On its 35th anniversary, we look back at the Coens' striking debut feature, which tipped us off to the cinematic delights that would follow.

by | January 18, 2020 | Comments

It’s more than a little surprising to learn that, of all the Coen brothers’ 18 features, Blood Simple is their second-highest rated movie on the Tomatometer. Critically bested only by True Grit (96%), the debut from writing-directing-producing-editing juggernauts Joel and Ethan Coen is Certified Fresh at 94%, beating Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men (93%) and titles that are more synonymous with their tough-to-pin-down, oddball sensibility, whether it’s cult fave The Big Lebowski (82%), dark suburban meditation A Serious Man (90%), high-octane quotable comedy Raising Arizona (91%), or the decidedly un-mainstream thriller that somehow still managed to become mainstream, Fargo (93%). This is by no means a dig at Blood Simple. It’s just that the taut neo-noir likely isn’t the first title brought up when you’re told “I love the Coen brothers” at a party.

Shot in 1982, Blood Simple weaves a worst-case-scenario about illicit lovers played by John Getz and Frances McDormand hiding in plain sight from McDormand’s pugnacious bar-owner husband (Dan Hedaya), while a shady and chatty PI under Hedaya’s employ (M. Emmet Walsh) plays the angles. In typical Coen brothers fashion, the plot twists and turns, and things fall apart, and it’s all laid out with a measured, confident visual style that’s clever but never too showy. To mark its 35th anniversary, let’s take a look at how Blood Simple offered us glimpses of the greatness to come from Hollywood’s most original filmmaking duo.


The Distinct Dialogue

Nobody writes like these guys, and that was pretty clear from the get-go. While Blood Simple’s script has the earmarks of a classic noir — the title nods to detective novelist extraordinaire Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest — the Coens screw with the form, tossing in their own brand of verbal playfulness, like the now-classic Coen-ism of different characters repeating phrases. Take the opening exchange between Getz and McDormand, with Getz repeating he “ain’t no marriage counselor.” It’s echoed later, during an icy moment when Hedaya asks Getz, “What are you, a f–kin’ marriage counselor?” The Coens would go on to use the move a bunch in their follow-up, Raising Arizona (“He’s a little outlaw”), Fargo (“Twin Cities”), and perhaps, most famously, The Big Lebowski, another PI movie of sorts (“This aggression will not stand”). Their inclinations to have fun with verbal ticks and regional American accents and, in the case of M. Emmet Walsh, embarrassing bursts of  laughter, is on display in Blood Simple, too, as is a now-familiar way for them to open a film: with a grizzled narrator speaking quasi-philosophically. That’s just how they would later kick off No Country for Old Men (also over shots of barren Texas landscapes), The Big Lebowski, and The Man Who Wasn’t There.


The Collaborators

USA Films
(Photo by USA Films)

Frances McDormand, who went on to marry Joel Coen, made her onscreen debut in Blood Simple and has since left an indelible mark on the Coen universe in — deep breath — Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo (for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar), The Man Who Wasn’t There, Burn After Reading, and Hail, Caesar!. In an interview about her first role, McDormand explains that her pal Holly Hunter was offered the part, but turned it down to act on Broadway. (As The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr points out in his deep dive into the Coens’ filmography, Hunter, who would go on to co-star in Raising Arizona, does sort of appear in the film, though it’s via an answering machine message.) M. Emmet Walsh, too, returns in said sophomore effort as a cackling co-worker. Blood Simple also marks the first in a long line of collaborations — 16 to date — with the composer Carter Burwell, as well as cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who acted as DP on Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing before becoming a sought-after director in his own right with Get Shorty and Men in Black. Both, like the Coens, were in their 20s during the filming of Blood Simple. Fun fact: Editor Roderick Jaynes — a nom de plume for the Coens — also makes his debut here. Way to go, Roderick.


The Style

Not unlike Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson’s debuts a decade later (Bottle Rocket and Hard Eight, respectively), Blood Simple features some Coen brothers hallmarks, though it’s hardly the film you’d single out to explain them to the uninitiated. (Interestingly, all three — sorry, four — filmmakers’ followups put them on the pop culture map with intoxicating aesthetics that aspiring directors would ape.) Yet those traces are there — the facial shadows, the shaky-cam that runs throughout Raising Arizona, the driving shot on a desolate road that’s in a bunch of their features, the emanating light (from under doors, in particular) used to such thrilling effect in No Country for Old Men. Beyond the visuals, there’s a nifty homage to Blood Simple in Fargo — both have characters moving a body on the side of the road while a car fast approaches at night — and narratively, no one in Blood Simple has any idea what the other is up to, a misunderstanding they’d explore often in the years to come, most heavily in Burn After Reading.


The Wicked Sense of Humor

On paper, there’s nothing funny about jamming someone in a wood chipper (Fargo), shooting them when they’ve got a dopey smile plastered on their face (Burn After Reading), or biting off their ear (The Big Lebowski). Of course there’s not. But when it suits their vision, the Coens have an uncanny knack for rendering hyper-violent moments into something absurd, even oddly humorous. At the end of Blood Simple — spoiler alert — McDormand stabs through Walsh’s hand, leaving it impaled on a windowsill and him trapped in an adjacent room, firing shots blindly through drywall, hoping to strike McDormand. It’s tense, but Walsh’s struggle — up until now, he’s been very much in charge — in this insane, almost slasher movie-like situation is more than a bit amusing. When his fate is set — it’s not good — Blood Simple fades to black, hitting us with the film’s soundtrack mantra, the upbeat soul classic  “It’s the Same Old Song” by the Four Tops, a delicious juxtaposition.


The Indie Spirit

 (c)USA Films courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by (c) USA Films courtesy Everett Collection)

The Coens spent a year trying to secure the $1.5-mil they needed to make Blood Simple, showing potential investors a homemade trailer to pique financial interests. While on set in Austin, apparently not everyone was convinced this peculiar, low-budget project by two young first-timers was aboveboard: M. Emmet Walsh says he wouldn’t take their $700 check, presumably fearing it’d bounce, and demanded cash instead. While the Coens’ stock has skyrocketed in the decades since (they are now among the few who can work with anyone they want and make virtually any movie they want), the peculiarity that critics loved about Blood Simple hasn’t waned. To this day, there’s an outsider, even defiant originality that runs throughout their films, and we’d be completely shocked if that ever changes.


Blood Simple was released on January 18, 1985.

#1

Blood Simple (1984)
94%

#1
Adjusted Score: 102.404%
Critics Consensus: Brutally violent and shockingly funny in equal measure, Blood Simple offers early evidence of the Coen Brothers' twisted sensibilities and filmmaking ingenuity.
Synopsis: In the first film of brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, M. Emmett Walsh plays Visser, an unscrupulous private eye... [More]
Directed By: Joel Coen

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

Spectrum Originals canceled TV shows Certified Fresh comiccon Turner teaser MCU Horror richard e. Grant Endgame Acorn TV IFC Disney Plus Starz television cancelled TV series 2016 jamie lee curtis Awards Tour Family binge Sci-Fi Musicals Walt Disney Pictures Amazon Prime Video Crackle Christmas crime drama Heroines DC streaming service mutant Warner Bros. Star Trek Universal NBC christmas movies BET 2017 crime thriller BBC America Classic Film justice league true crime sports screenings Disney Channel hist screen actors guild psychological thriller Year in Review Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Red Carpet Vudu Bravo Marvel Studios Sundance TV OWN Hulu spain zombies golden globes Fall TV spider-man police drama Nat Geo what to watch spy thriller APB adventure NYCC FXX festivals comic singing competition Discovery Channel AMC sitcom war Syfy WarnerMedia FOX Mary Poppins Returns Television Academy Reality Competition Disney+ Disney Plus ghosts YouTube Premium Women's History Month Brie Larson Watching Series Star Wars Sony Pictures Schedule Cannes LGBTQ harry potter crime award winner Superheroes Winter TV X-Men TIFF TruTV Turner Classic Movies Dark Horse Comics TV psycho cancelled TCA Winter 2020 indie DC Universe First Reviews elevated horror Holidays GIFs animated Awards latino Fox News Adult Swim TCM Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Reality Avengers dramedy breaking bad renewed TV shows Amazon Prime witnail Esquire biography 71st Emmy Awards Hallmark Christmas movies cooking Thanksgiving MSNBC First Look movies Comic Book Rocky 24 frames Stephen King TCA 2017 Trivia free movies Britbox USA Network zombie quibi Sundance Now discovery diversity Election The CW Ellie Kemper cancelled television Music technology BBC period drama Photos Superheroe YouTube Red Mindy Kaling El Rey dc VH1 2015 facebook cinemax DC Comics Netflix Christmas movies Creative Arts Emmys Box Office Summer President aliens FX Countdown Valentine's Day Shudder TLC Pirates HBO Max game show TNT Showtime American Society of Cinematographers zero dark thirty series ratings supernatural The Witch thriller Action Toys Tumblr TCA E3 historical drama Set visit TV Land GoT video independent Lifetime Christmas movies New York Comic Con cats Binge Guide anime Nickelodeon romance south america Spring TV SXSW sequel Oscars blockbuster Premiere Dates cops doctor who Ghostbusters Pet Sematary Chernobyl Opinion theme song medical drama political drama joker adaptation See It Skip It Apple TV Plus Cartoon Network science fiction Animation Biopics The Arrangement foreign CBS spanish language National Geographic book Film Columbia Pictures casting Apple boxoffice SDCC anthology IFC Films LGBT PaleyFest Tarantino SundanceTV Film Festival ITV ABC sag awards Trailer WGN Martial Arts 2020 stand-up comedy based on movie Paramount Network DGA romantic comedy Song of Ice and Fire cancelled TV shows GLAAD Anna Paquin The Purge San Diego Comic-Con robots Quiz Grammys space 2019 DirecTV Elton John Video Games OneApp dceu Calendar Musical crossover halloween Rock Kids & Family A&E name the review Drama disaster game of thrones CNN Writers Guild of America Captain marvel Baby Yoda mockumentary Holiday YA versus Tomatazos The Walking Dead Rocketman 21st Century Fox Mary Tyler Moore cults VICE canceled green book Shondaland finale RT21 HBO ABC Family miniseries TBS Sneak Peek politics Best and Worst directors Polls and Games Logo Podcast cartoon Spike cars RT History Apple TV+ Amazon Interview batman Pop Pride Month Infographic strong female leads Paramount E! comics Marathons nature serial killer Lucasfilm Fantasy Western kids tv talk 007 werewolf Epix Freeform Ovation Sundance PBS Food Network Academy Awards hispanic transformers Cosplay CMT Amazon Studios Masterpiece Mudbound unscripted Disney streaming service Mystery Pixar rotten movies we love Character Guide Lionsgate Marvel Peacock dragons social media Crunchyroll talk show Country natural history Trophy Talk MTV Disney streaming Comedy toy story travel History movie spinoff CW Seed Nominations Marvel Television CBS All Access Winners vampires Rom-Com Super Bowl docudrama documentary Mary poppins Tubi A24 Lifetime 45 YouTube Black Mirror children's TV slashers ESPN reboot Hallmark Comedy Central Comics on TV Arrowverse revenge Emmys composers Teen blaxploitation USA TV renewals Netflix Extras Emmy Nominations 2018 20th Century Fox