Collected Works: Film
directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
‘He gave me a little pearl-handled .38 for our first anniversary. Figured I’d better leave before I used it on him.’ The opening dialogue of Blood Simple takes place in a moving car, as the front window is pelted with heavy rain. The driver is a barman; the woman speaking is his boss’s wife. In less than two dozen words, she sets the tone for all that is to follow: a troubled marriage, an affair, a tangle of violence, and a double-crossing. We know the ‘pearl-handled .38’ will make an appearance. Who pulls the trigger, and who proves the victim, is yet to be seen.
Complicating matters further is a greedy private investigator, hired by the bar owner to follow his wife. In a pivotal scene, a fly crawls across the PI’s face as he agrees to commit murder. He talks on, unfazed. Blood Simple is buoyed by such passing moments. Ceiling fans rotate ominously. Shadows dance over bodies as they sleep. The visuals are grimy, stained by sulphur. One playful tracking shot sees the camera glide slowly across the bar, deviating from its course only to raise itself over a slouched drunk.
Blood Simple is the first of many Coen brothers films in which misunderstandings and botched crime scenes play central roles. The spectator is omniscient, but the characters know only part of the truth. They make mistakes of judgement, or inadvertently make the correct choices despite misinformation. Elsewhere, amateur blunders give away imperfection. Blood seeps through sheets. Belongings are left behind. Tyre tracks, in clear view, lead straight to a buried corpse.
The plot may be an intricate one, but each complication or unfortunate death follows its own inner logic. Each is explainable and understandable in context, so that one may only become aware of the plot’s complex construction in hindsight, when the film ends. And it isn’t until the end does come that, with a maniacal laugh and a dripping sink, Blood Simple’s body count finally grinds to a halt.
Words by John Wadsworth
More to discover
You can watch the trailer here, and view a 1984 video interview with the Coen brothers here. Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, Randall Colburn & Justin Gerber have analysed the film for Consequence of Sound. If you would like to read more about the novels of James M. Cain, which influenced much of Blood Simple, see this article by Paul Coughlin.