Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple is the debut movie of the Coen Brothers. How has time treated this movie from the Golden Age of Culture that was the 1980's?

Quite well, actually. It holds up as a very strong and suspenseful thriller that clearly belongs to the Coen's oeuvre. It only contains one unforgivable mistake, and I believe it involved bowing to a trend of the '8o's - but I'll talk about that later.

The movie opens with desolate shots of Texas, and we're then plunged directly into a conversation between a women who's running away and a man, her friend, who is helping her. The conversation takes place in a car, and the aura of menace is established immediately. Firstly, it is raining heavily and it is nighttime - a dangerous scene that any driver can identify with and dread. But the Coen's engage an interesting use of oncoming traffic, wherein the headlights come closer and closer and closer until they are about to hit the car that we're riding in - but they inevitably slide by.

It turns out that these two are more than just friends but lovers, and they passionately 'make it' in a motel room (the actors are Frances McDormand [see: Fargo et al] and John Getz, a Texas man if I've ever seen one). But they wake up to a phone call from Frances' husband, played by Dan Hedaya, who's had them followed by a creepy PI. Suspicions fly, contracts are taken out on people, and the movie proceeds in a stealthy, creepy manner, where we don't know what's going to happen next. Shadows loom as menacing forms, we imagine each scene to be the last - dread and suspense have been well established.

As the Coen brothers have made one or two movies since 1984, it might be worthwhile to examine the various flourishes that are found in this movie and will be eventually employed in others. Music, firstly, is well used. The Coens know when to play a song and how to - they may play one loud, so that it dominates the scene, or it may be in the background, subtly setting the mood. And in Blood Simple, they amply use music, whether its 70's soul, reggae, or Southwestern.

Next is the use of confusion as a plot device. This runs throughout many of their movies: Big Lebowski, Miller's Crossing, A Serious Man, Fargo, etc. Mistaken identity, mistaken motives, all these are excellent plot devices that keep the story flowing, as characters struggle to make it in a world that's seemingly quite confusing, but they engage the viewers directly - we want to grab the characters and reveal to them our omniscient position - but of course we cannot.

Some scenes in Blood Simple I've seen in other movies. There is a scene where John Getz observes a VW Bug parked under a streetlight. Here, it's menacing and filled with the creepy PI (played by M. Emmet Walsh). In the Big Lebowski, the Bug parked under a streetlight is also filled with a pudgy, balding PI, a brother Seamus as he (John Polito) says, but there the encounter is comical, filled with a false dread. Another scene from Blood Simple can be found in No Country for Old Men, when Anton Chigurh runs quietly on the porch outside motels rooms. Here and in that movie, however, the vibe of the scene remains the same.

And lastly, we come to my one gripe about what was an otherwise excellent movie: the use of blue light that illuminates haze.  This is a hallmark of 1980's movies. I don't know why. Maybe they thought it made nighttime scenes creepier. Maybe it did, for a movie or two. But do you know what it does for me now? It immediately dates the movie to the eighties - and I start thinking about The Running Man, a movie with copious amount of haze lit by a blue light. So, next time you watch an 80's movie, generally thrillers or action movies, look for this cinematic trope. Blood Simple doesn't suffer for it, so much, because it evokes it's thrills and creepiness in other ways, mainly through the plot and the acting. But movies that rely on this device for atmosphere, well, we see through you, and the trick no longer works.

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