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: 102.448%
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

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