When deciding what story would be most fitting for their low-budget debut feature, the Coen Brothers claim to have taken a very pragmatic approach - a seedy erotic noir-tinged thriller seemed like the best way to make a mark with very little resources. Both the high passions of the lustful leads and the sweaty machinations of their grimy antagonists lent themselves to stylistic flourishes that would immediately signal the Coens as a filmmaking duo to be taken very seriously.
Drawing equal inspiration from James M Cain and EC Comics, the film is intensely atmospheric, all neon, sweat, and blood. It was while serving as Assistant Editor on his friend Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead that Joel got the idea for he and his brother to self-finance a feature of their own, and indeed the older brother's time in the trenches of low-budget horror flicks shows in such details as the seemingly invincible Loren Visser's stalking of Abby through the film's climax, or the grisly fate of Julian Marty (whose overall battering throughout the film is the first example of the typically beset Coen lead character, a progenitor of Jerry Lundergaard and Larry Gopnik).
many of the Coens' hallmarks are very much present in their debut.
Hapless would-be criminal masterminds instigating and then being overrun by plots that
become much too complex and chaotic for them to navigate. Colorfully venal, yet compellingly likable supporting characters. And perhaps most importantly, a very specific sense of tone and place. The backwoods Texas of Blood Simple may be one that is indebted more to the illusory cultural construction of the Lone Star State than to any tangible reality, just as the plot takes all of the necessary tropes of the genre (a macho loner with a blemished past, the jealous restaurant/bar owner with the sex-pot wife who has long since grown tired of him, the seedy, low-rent private eye) and turns them on their heads and making them new all over again by fleshing them out in ways somehow both broad and incredibly detailed.
Not every aspect of the Coens' style is fully formed just yet. Some of the actors seem stuck somewhere between stylization and realism, and the line readings sometimes work towards accentuating the more baroque moments rather than downplaying and contextualizing them within the heightened reality. Equally refined later on would become the stylistic nuances - while there are hints of humor both black and absurd here, it feels a bit more tentative than in later efforts. Yet these are nothing more than the blips of a very assured pair of artists taking the first step towards translating their vision into cinematic reality (and indeed by their next feature, the madcap Raising Arizona, everything would be quickly locked right into place). As the opening statement of a career, and as a rough map of everything that would follow, Blood Simple is nothing less than one of the most remarkable debut films of all time.
Blood Simple screens tonight at 9:30, and again Sunday at 1:00, as a part of our Fall Focus on Directors. don't forget, Festival members get into all screenings in this series for free. Buy tickets in advance or at the door.
Christopher Sailor is the Programmer of Education for the Atlanta Film Festival. He also waxes cinematic at chrissailor.com