25 Years Ago the Coens Made Their ‘Blood Simple’ Debut

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In Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut film, Blood Simple, the characters find themselves in a bad spot, and it only gets worse. When there’s a fire they don’t dump water on it, they dump gasoline. The word “accident” doesn’t even apply. Everybody in this film has no idea what they’re doing, but if they did, it would have all been a lot less interesting.

Truth has an elusiveness here that proves rather unfortunate for our hapless cast. Yet the movie doesn’t suffer from much second-guessing. Everything that happens here is entirely plausible.

Visually stylish in its day, Blood Simple looks a little dated now but not so much that you would give it much thought. It’s too tightly constructed, it’s got too much flair for you to give a damn. Still, Blood Simple doesn’t rank among my very favorite Coen features. It’s excellent, but the rewatchability isn’t as high as it is for, say, Miller’s Crossing. For every one hundred times I watch Miller’s Crossing, I may watch Blood Simple once, but there’s still something to be said for this, now, 25-year-old film I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the No Country for Old Men fans have yet to hear about, let alone see.

There are established motifs here, images that will be echoed in later Coen ventures whether its Barry Sonnenfeld or Roger Deakins manning the cam. Because we’re talking about this movie not only because it’s good, but because it’s the movie that brought us the Coen brothers. As such it holds a special place in movielovers’ hearts. The movie – and the filmmakers – even earned the respect of the great Zhang Yimou (Hero) whose latest film, A Simple Noodle Story is essentially a Blood Simple remake — in a weird sort of way.

In its time, Blood Simple was so celebrated there were some confused and irritated critical caucuses who later found themselves scratching their heads watching Raising Arizona, wondering where it all went wrong for the Coens in their sophomore effort. It’s a movie as far removed from Blood Simple as that film’s characters are from actualities. The truth is there’s nothing wrong with Raising Arizona, but the critical perceptions of who these guys were as filmmakers; that might have been. The Coens had no interest in being masters of moody neo-noir. Their agenda was easy: they had none.

Of course no one knew what to expect back then. Like the characters in Blood Simple, everyone was flying blind whether they knew it or not. The Coens broke into movies with Joel Coen serving as assistant editor for Sam Raimi on The Evil Dead in 1981. While he was doing that, a trailer for Blood Simple was cut before the movie ever went into production. The plan was to use the early trailer to promote the movie and score some funding. It worked. They landed a $1.5 million production budget, which was barely recovered upon release. Still, critics were more than pleased.

The critical community could barely contain themselves. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1985. In 2001, the movie landed on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills list (at #98). Many compared the film to the greatest of Hitchcock or compared the debut to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Not bad eh?

The movie begins slowly, but not lazily. You may find yourself relaxing a bit, laying your head down, letting the breath of a Coen feature wash over you like a tide of warm water. Soon, you start shifting a bit. Crossing one leg. Uncrossing, crossing over the other. Then you’re stuck, paralyzed; only watching. And before you know it, your head is in a vice and the brothers are tightening the screws. Tightening more. A leak of water from a mass of piping threatens a droplet. It falls. And the movie is over. You went to Coenville and back. And here’s the best part: more from the Coens is on the horizon. This was merely the starting point, and a remake of True Grit is next on the list and to miss it might be the biggest mistake you ever made, you Texas brush-popper!

NOTE: While Blood Simple was first shown on the festival circuit in late 1984, we are calling it official 25 years-old based on its January 18, 1985 release date.

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Weekend: Dec. 20, 2018, Dec. 23, 2018

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