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Thursday, February 7, 2013

First of Fourteen: Blood Simple

This series is dedicated to the viewing of first films by fourteen different directors of my choosing. The purpose being a retrospective look back at each film and where it stands in their overall canon and how it may have shaped each director's style in subsequent years. Each director chosen is currently active, and has helmed at least five films. 

The Coen Brothers are often a highlight for me during a cinematic year, and when their new films are announced I usually bump it up somewhere towards the top of my list of films that I must see. My first experience with them came with their Palme d'Or winning Barton Fink, a film that I remember only wanting to watch as a child because it was about wrestling, go figure. Skip ahead a few years and I'm enjoying The Big Lebowski with my father, and O Brother Where Art Thou? with my parents. As enjoyable as all of those films (as well as Miller's Crossing and Fargo, which I caught up to later in life), none of them come close to sheer mastery that was apparent in their 2007 release No Country For Old Men, and their 2009 effort A Serious Man, both of which having been nominated for Best Picture in their respective year. No Country was the neo-western that I had always wanted to see, but never realized it, along with some of the best subtle ensemble acting that one could ask for. A Serious Man, for its part, was a re-appropriation of the Book of Job from the Bible in much the same way that O Brother was a adaptation of the Odyssey. A Serious Man was the perfect follow up to No Country, regardless of the existence of Burn After Reading, in its pitch black humor and depths upon depths of metaphorical meaning. Both films show the Coens at their best dramatically and comedically. I've never seen Blood Simple, I rectified that this week, I wish I had kinder things to say.

To summarize for those who like me haven't seen it, Blood Simple centers around Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) who owns a local bar in god knows where, Texas and his hiring of Private Investigator Lorren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to follow his wife Abby (Frances McDormand), whom he believes is having an affair with one of his bartenders, Ray (John Getz). Visser takes pictures of Ray and Abby in the act, and shares them with Marty. After an altercation at the bar and another at Ray's home where Abby is spending the night, Marty employs Visser to kill his wife and Ray for $10,000 which he initially agrees to do, but as in most noirs, things are never as simple as they might seem and Visser has other plans, leading to doom and gloom for all involved.

I didn't have a great time watching Blood Simple, and it can mostly be attributed to the writing. First time screenwriter Ethan Coen simply doesn't bother with all important aspects like characterization. Recently, I criticized Christopher Nolan's Following for this problem, and its just as apparent here. Film-noirs work best when an audience can find something to attach itself to in its given characters. Chinatown and Kiss Me Deadly worked because the protagonists were sympathetic, or at the very least displayed emotions and actions that were somewhat relate-able. Unfortunately, none of this is apparent in the Coen's debut. Ray may actually be one of the most boring ciphers I've ever seen in a film of this type, every word he speaks feels like it carries some form of importance but there's utterly no dramatic weight. The chemistry between Ray and Abby is completely non-existent, and you start to wonder how could she possibly prefer this lowly bartender over her fairly well to do husband, flaws and all.

When an audience is unable to buy into the film's central conflict, the entire workings fall apart. Abby and Marty don't really fare much better, though Hedaya is able to at least make the best of the screen time given to him, breathing some form of conflict into Marty's decision making. When he decides to finally commit to Visser eliminating his wife and Ray, that's one of the few times that character depth becomes apparent. Marty isn't a bad person, he's just a difficult one, and placed in a situation that brings him to a breaking point that shifts him into villainy. Abby is a complete blank slate and exists more or less to move the plot forward. We never really learn what keeps her ticking; does she fear Marty? Has he cheated on her? Is their sexual relationship in shambles? These questions are never answered, and Abby just ends up coming across as a plot device. Visser, the "evil man behind a desk" that tends to always show up in the Coens' dramatic films is probably the character that Ethan was most likely the most enamored with, as the screen comes alive whenever he's present. There's a sense of whimsy and humor in his dialogue that doesn't exist anywhere else, and its clear that he was a prototype for future Coen characters, something I'm glad came to pass.

Technically, the film is solid and its camera work is more or less its main highlight. I was recently reminded that Joel Coen served as an editor for Sam Raimi during filming for the Evil Dead and the influence there is obvious. During a scene where Marty breaks into Ray's home and is dragging Abby out by her throat, the camera moves in an almost "deadite" manner, as it flies towards Marty and Abby. It's a neat little nod that perked me up as a Raimi fan generally. Additionally, there's an effect that occurs towards the end of the film when Visser is coming after Abby and when reaching into a nearby window she impales his hand with a steak knife, you'll have to forgive me if I thought his hand was almost going to start walking off too, the effect was so similar to something from Raimi's work. That influence clearly began to wane as soon as their next film, when the Coen's style became more of what we're used to as definably theirs. The relationship did continue on though, through the next year's Crimewave as the Coen's provided the script for that Raimi film. Unfortunately, the inventiveness and influence-ridden work that Joel provides behind the camera simply cannot pick up the slack provided by Ethan's dull slog of a script. Parts of the script get so ridiculous that there's even a completely out of place sniper scene. I can forgive a good deal, but I almost couldn't believe my eyes when the script devolved into shock territory out of nowhere.

Performances throughout Blood Simple matchup with the void of characterization, McDormand does her darndest to make something work with Abby but she's given the barest of scraps, the same goes for Hedaya. Walsh is the highlight of the entire ensemble, much like his character, so its fitting that he would be the person that I found most impressive. Getz, a character actor who hasn't appeared in much since this film, is probably the worst of the lot, where his one defining characteristic is having a southern accent and little else. He delving into insanity in the film's latter half is so half-baked and poorly executed both in conception and performance that I found myself just tuning him out. A solid actor can shape bad dialogue and character turns into something workable, Getz was not up to this task.

The Coen Bros. obviously had better films in them and the jump in quality between Blood Simple and Raising Arizona is almost meteoric. I'm reminded of Wes Anderson's and Christopher Nolan's freshman efforts, covered previously, that also were significantly lesser than their second time behind the lens. Blood Simple is a film that certainly displays the beginnings of stylistic brilliance, but the writing is plainly in the embryonic stage with a plot that's so ho-hum that I felt little reason to care. Everyone has to start somewhere. For the record, if anyone wonders what my top five Coen films are I'd say: 5. Miller's Crossing, 4. Barton Fink, 3. The Big Lebowski, 2. A Serious Man, 1. No Country for Old Men, which is also in my top ten of all time currently.

If I were to grade this film, I'd give it a C at best.

Next up on First of Fourteen: I try to unravel Darren Aronofsky's Pi and then I take a look at Kathryn Bigelow's solo debut Near Dark

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