Directed by the Coen Brothers
Blood Simple is like the thesis of the Coen Brothers’ filmography. It’s a dark comedy about murder and characters in over their heads. The film ends with a woman shooting dead a man who is not the man she thinks he is. These are people who get themselves into trouble and don’t think ahead. The message of the film seems to be that some things are out of your control, even as you put them in motion.
A lot of the themes and images of Blood Simple show up in their later films. One of the clearest examples is the car pulled over on the side of a quiet highway in the middle of the night, similar to a scene in Fargo. In each case someone is trying to dispose of a body in nightmarish fashion.
The Coen Brothers have a knack for showing the grizzly details. In the highway scene, Ray (John Getz) buries Marty (Dan Hedaya) alive in the ground, and the dirt heaves up and down as his breathing gets more frantic. Marty is the husband of Abby (Frances McDormand), the woman Ray is sleeping with.
Early, when Marty confirms the affair through a private investigator, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), he confronts Ray who happens to work for him, and from there the story keeps you guessing. Like in Fargo, the story moves fast. From the very first scene, a plot is in motion. We’re not given a few scenes to get to know the characters in their normal lives, but rather we jump right in. Ray and Abby sneak around in darkness in the first scene, and already the private eye follows them like a killer, waiting in the shadows.
When Marty confirms that it is Ray who’s sleeping with his wife, he wastes no time in talking to him face to face. Ray isn’t concerned. He simply asks if he’s fired or if he should quit.
Fed up, Marty goes to Loren to have Ray and Abby killed. Loren stages the murder through some pre-photoshop photoshopping, and after getting the money Marty promised him, he shoots and kills Marty, or so it seems. Later, Ray shows up to find his one time boss dead and, believing Abby to have done it, he takes it upon himself to dispose of the body on the side of the freeway.
It’s a thrilling sequence that gets darker and darker. At one point Marty wakes up and begins crawling down the highway, dripping blood along the way. Ray scrambles, trying to come up with a plan on the fly, but he can’t bring himself to kill Marty with blunt force, so he buries him alive.
Through a series of escalating miscommunications, Abby doesn’t realize her husband is dead, and the private eye, having lost his lighter at the scene of the crime and mis-located the doctored photos, thinks Ray or Abby has them. This all leads to a showdown at Abby’s apartment where an unseen man shoots Ray dead and hunts Abby. In the best sequence of the movie, brilliantly and tensely shot and edited, Abby fights back against the man, believing him to be her disgruntled husband all the way until she shoots him dead through a wall.
Up until the end, they are all blind. Marty is blindsided, Ray is shot by a man he has never met, the gunshot coming from the darkness behind him, and then Abby kills a man she thinks is someone else… who has been dead for a while now.
Each character is in over their heads, and Blood Simple does a tremendous job of making the violence feel real and unnerving. It’s hard not to put yourself in Marty’s shoes as you watch him clumsily attempt to dispose of a dying man’s body. Why didn’t he kill Marty before he buried him? Well if I was in his place, I might not want to bludgeon him over the head either.
Ray acts from a position of fear. At the start of the film he seems bold, brash and uncaring. He’s maybe not the type of person we aspire to be like, but he’s confident, made more heroic simply because Marty is more unhinged. But then the Coen Brothers really unpack his character, exposing him as believably human. He isn’t any kind of archetype, and neither is Marty or Abby. They’re realistic characters who find themselves out of their element.
Blood Simple starts as a film noir. Its characters live in the shadows, and it’s a while into the film before we see them clearly in daylight. They seem more sinister, their actions more calculated than they really are. But contrary to most noirs, there is no mystery here. Marty learns almost immediately, only minutes into the film, that it is Ray who’s sleeping with his wife. What comes next is the slippery slope of a fragile human psyche.
Marty wants Ray and Abby killed, but when he’s told the job has been done, he vomits. This isn’t a man who was acting with any conviction, just with a lot of fear, and that’s what gets him killed. Marty makes it clear at the start that he doesn’t respect the private eye, and he knows he’s an unsavory person. But then Marty lets his anger get the best of him, and suddenly he’s back to interacting with a man he should avoid. The private eye kills him and steals the money, but then the private eye’s own undoing comes when he’s scared of getting caught, realizing he left key evidence at the scene of Marty’s murder.
Ray gets into the most trouble when he tries to dispose of Marty’s body, believing Abby to have done it, and Abby… well what is there to make of her? In a typical noir she might be the femme fatale, and Marty warns Ray not to trust her early on, after he knows he’s lost her. When Marty says this, I believed him. We know so little about Abby that we’re forced to trust the only information we’re given, Marty’s warning. That and our experience with this genre tells us that she has something up her sleeve.
But by the end, Abby is just as scared and seemingly harmless as everyone else. That being said, she’s just as violent, despite being harmless, as everyone else as well. Chased by the private eye in a sequence straight out of a horror film, Abby hides but then fights back, having been cornered. She’s in a more literal corner this time while everyone else acted out of the feeling of having been cornered.
Blood Simple seems to suggest that humans are inherently destructive, even if we think we’re more civilized now. The characters in this film are more capable of taking someone’s life and wreaking havoc than they realize. All the while they remain clumsy, but they’re dangerous all the same, and that danger comes from their own fear.
What’s most amazing about all this, I think, is that we get very little sense of what Ray and Abby have to lose. Though she chose Ray, seemingly, over Marty, the affair never seems all that passionate. When they say they love each other, it feels almost like a stale greeting given to a doorman in passing. In the second such instance, Ray points out that Abby is only telling him what he wants to here, though we understand why, because she thinks Ray killed her husband.
These characters aren’t pulled towards anything as much as they’re trying to stay away from something else. They become desperate to maintain the status quo even as it becomes clear they don’t understand the other person, believing the other to be capable of murder. Do any of our three main characters every really understand each other? They all seem to be operating in their own small worlds where everything is clear, but the stories between them never line up.
And Blood Simple bounces between each of the three leads in such a way to make it feel like we’re watching that person’s movie before we shift protagonists. First we’re most clearly in Marty’s head as he tries to figure out how to deal with the uncovered affair. He struggles with what to do, how to feel and how to move forward. Before he dies, but after we think he has died, the story belongs to Ray, facing similarly tough decisions as he figures out how best to deal with Marty’s murder.
Once Ray comes clean to Abby about burying Marty, she doesn’t immediately believe him, but she does fear him. It’s the first time, it seems, that they’re on the same page, but it’s also when Abby leaves him behind, scared of what he might’ve become. The story belongs to Abby as she tries to figure out how best to deal with Ray, unsure of what he’s done or who he really is. When Ray is killed, she’s pursued by the private eye, and while the other men had something to deliberate over, Abby’s journey is clear, to get the hell away.
Maybe there’s a message here about the brashness of man. It’s Ray, Marty and the private eye who make the mistakes and have to figure out how to clean up their mess. It’s Abby who ultimately has to pay for it. Her face at the end is one of despair and pure confusion when she realizes that the man she shot is not her husband but someone she’s never met. In some ways it feels like the whole film might have been constructed around this final scene. How can we have someone kill a complete stranger with clear conviction? The point would seem to be to expose a person’s capacity for violence in conjunction with their complete cluelessness.
When you kill someone, you’re not thinking clearly, I suppose. Later Coen Brothers films are famous for scenes of horrible violence that come about due to a small misunderstanding that gets blown out of proportion. They find the humor in this, and in doing so seem to cut straight into the comic essence of all people. We’re looking out for ourselves, and we’re helplessly blind to the world around us. Even in their comedies, many of their big personality characters are humorous because of how set in their ways they are. They’re not reacting with the person to whom they’re speaking as much as they’re anticipating what that person will say and ignoring anything that doesn’t fit whatever narrative they’re working with.