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.


Blood Simple (1984)

Adjusted Score: 104570%
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: "Blood Simple" was the first feature film from Joel and Ethan Coen. This is the newly restored and re-edited director's... [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

die hard Freeform richard e. Grant cats Shudder Black Mirror Netflix Baby Yoda Legendary art house Mystery video politics harry potter james bond Podcast The Walt Disney Company technology cancelled TV shows strong female leads latino President foreign RT History series Travel Channel comiccon independent singing competition Broadway revenge Summer documentaries child's play Pixar ViacomCBS Logo live event telelvision ESPN animated dragons royal family Disney streaming service movie Universal Pictures Rom-Com emmy awards TCA Pride Month USA Network spy thriller MCU vampires Marathons kaiju witnail Premiere Dates Amazon Studios TruTV Mary Tyler Moore LGBT BBC One AMC 4/20 CW Seed kids monster movies marvel cinematic universe Nominations scorecard Christmas SXSW Starz mob 2017 The CW Paramount Comic-Con@Home 2021 anime high school IMDb TV Disney Exclusive Video cinemax BAFTA screen actors guild Sneak Peek Awards casting sports renewed TV shows a nightmare on elm street Funimation Epix quibi boxing Calendar Marvel Television finale WGN sopranos women Lifetime Christmas movies new zealand sequels Cannes scene in color FX Rocky spider-man nbcuniversal TNT crossover Television Academy GIFs Fantasy toy story worst sag awards aapi reviews 72 Emmy Awards rt labs hidden camera X-Men Cartoon Network Year in Review Hallmark Adult Swim zombies Britbox PBS screenings slasher Pop TV DGA Lionsgate fresh diversity Ellie Kemper Valentine's Day Binge Guide Trophy Talk VICE Pirates scary movies toronto Brie Larson cancelled TV series Writers Guild of America Reality GLAAD Amazon legend Opinion action-comedy Certified Fresh YouTube 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Spike PlayStation Trivia Countdown joker 2019 award winner Dark Horse Comics dexter OneApp Song of Ice and Fire Classic Film Emmy Nominations concert comedies Disney+ Disney Plus Sundance serial killer CNN book science fiction festival Rock DC Universe TIFF Comics on TV movies ABC Family genre dramedy Pop NYCC australia hispanic heritage month Crunchyroll Holiday christmas movies Musical romance Spring TV all-time TLC 90s unscripted best Emmys south america Peacock Turner binge popular Tarantino spinoff Disney Channel dreamworks obituary suspense Disney Plus reboot WarnerMedia Tumblr target First Reviews Apple TV+ Warner Bros. The Arrangement adenture 99% black indie VOD cancelled television zombie sitcom Paramount Plus cartoon Women's History Month gangster romantic comedy 73rd Emmy Awards new star wars movies 2015 Lucasfilm Star Wars adventure Thanksgiving docuseries Red Carpet know your critic venice period drama debate talk show Masterpiece Hulu MSNBC 007 halloween tv Sundance Now TV Land jurassic park Comic Book Superheroes Fall TV psychological thriller PaleyFest blockbuster theme song stop motion war Arrowverse TV movies golden globe awards halloween HBO Go Best and Worst New York Comic Con stand-up comedy Nat Geo BBC Amazon Prime Video Fox News video on demand hispanic El Rey aliens television BET football pirates of the caribbean Family FOX Chernobyl TCA Awards Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt lord of the rings Mindy Kaling mockumentary black comedy universal monsters game of thrones See It Skip It social media TBS doctor who biopic golden globes Creative Arts Emmys Western NBA Interview sequel ABC young adult Alien breaking bad Chilling Adventures of Sabrina robots TCA 2017 Ghostbusters stoner Infographic Reality Competition Martial Arts RT21 adaptation 93rd Oscars CBS blockbusters Image Comics deadpool 2021 psycho Film Festival Ovation Stephen King new york Trailer marvel comics Polls and Games HBO Max Esquire crime prank A24 crime drama TV renewals Pacific Islander YA Discovery Channel biography werewolf Television Critics Association international streaming movies batman SundanceTV godzilla Toys elevated horror police drama justice league anthology E! Sci-Fi olympics fast and furious Drama rotten free movies Character Guide Columbia Pictures TCA Winter 2020 supernatural Syfy 2018 Hallmark Christmas movies transformers FXX E3 Captain marvel tv talk franchise 1990s natural history remakes Shondaland streaming Photos slashers versus live action facebook cooking Sony Pictures Film wonder woman twilight chucky Holidays 2016 spain 45 2020 Hear Us Out based on movie scary ID what to watch DC Comics true crime historical drama Comedy archives Action laika Nickelodeon GoT AMC Plus french Teen Crackle Elton John TV comic books rt labs critics edition hollywood The Academy nature comic book movie Bravo critics Election Watching Series USA mission: impossible Neflix teaser children's TV Winners zero dark thirty cancelled MTV canceled Apple TV Plus boxoffice spanish language History book adaptation Schedule rt archives Pet Sematary jamie lee curtis indiana jones disaster asian-american Awards Tour Marvel Box Office comics Quiz San Diego Comic-Con Wes Anderson Rocketman Tubi Country Musicals Mary poppins Avengers worst movies basketball thriller comic book movies Anna Paquin LGBTQ Showtime CMT crime thriller criterion BET Awards Lifetime medical drama Music SDCC Vudu Winter TV classics APB IFC spider-verse Mary Poppins Returns Superheroe OWN cops space A&E Oscars docudrama BBC America Paramount Network kong festivals Food Network Super Bowl Instagram Live Endgame Cosplay dc Academy Awards vs. Extras saw The Witch NBC italian Mudbound Turner Classic Movies ABC Signature TV One Star Trek YouTube Red spanish Video Games dark The Purge 71st Emmy Awards Walt Disney Pictures ghosts posters Fox Searchlight 20th Century Fox rotten movies we love critic resources green book comic superman IFC Films 21st Century Fox Tomatazos nfl Amazon Prime YouTube Premium blaxploitation game show films Horror Spectrum Originals Tokyo Olympics Biopics hist Marvel Studios Apple Kids & Family trailers feel good HBO ITV VH1 news CBS All Access Netflix Christmas movies canceled TV shows political drama parents Animation Grammys dogs DirecTV king kong directors Acorn TV Set visit documentary American Society of Cinematographers japan Universal satire Comedy Central travel ratings Black History Month cars japanese DC streaming service cults TCM mutant razzies mcc First Look miniseries rom-coms Sundance TV 24 frames name the review king arthur superhero The Walking Dead composers discovery dceu heist movie National Geographic Heroines FX on Hulu