We gave it an A
In the back room of a roadside bar, a scheming putz, played by the gangly, fish-faced John Getz, erases the stains of homicide. Instead of a mop, he uses a wind-breaker, which doesn’t do much except smear the blood around. He then goes after the droplets, the whole grisly scenario set off, with high-octane irony, by the jukebox ebullience of the Four Tops singing ”It’s the Same Old Song.” Norman Bates may have gotten there first, but it took 1985’s Blood Simple, a twisty Texas Guignol scuzz-criminal yarn, to make cleaning up a murder seem positively hip.
A corpse that won’t stay dead. Ceiling fans and six-guns and rain-streaked windshields. A love triangle crisscrossed with betrayal. In their landmark first feature, Joel and Ethan Coen tweaked the conventions of film noir, ”wild” Southern gothic, and even slasher films, yet the clichés weren’t just regurgitated. They were made rapt and hypnotic, exploited for their old-fashioned pulp charge but also stretched out like taffy, so that the filmmakers seemed to be staring, along with the audience and God, at these gutbucket plotters whose most ruthless and random actions somehow mutated into an elegantly symmetrical story.
That Four Tops song, which was dropped from the video version because of music rights, has been restored for the film’s 15th-anniversary rerelease, and there have been several minor trims and revisions as well. All in all, ”Blood Simple” looks better than ever: clever in a mockingly amoral yet nearly passionate way, its characters united in their desire to knock each other off, never guessing that we know their secrets better than they do. Quentin Tarantino, you’d better believe, took a good, hard look at ”Blood Simple”; so did David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh.
This was arguably the first American independent film that wanted to do nothing more — or less — than enthrall its audience with the sleight-of-hand rogue cunning of a Hollywood thriller. In the light of John Cassavetes’ lumpen vérité rambles, or the shoestring liberalism of John Sayles and Victor Nuñez, the Coen brothers made the impulse toward sheer entertainment seem, for an ”art” film, a revolutionary act. At the same time, their garishly overdeliberate, ”look Ma I went to film school” rhythms expressed a new sensibility. Like ”Stranger Than Paradise,” released two months earlier, ”Blood Simple” used its slow-motion, dream-time tempo as an invitation to watch yourself watching.
That, more or less, is what the Coens have been doing ever since — with diminishing returns. Seeing ”Blood Simple” again, the film, despite its dollops of ghoulish comedy, plays surprisingly straight. ”Fargo” may have marked a return to form, but in ”Blood Simple,” Frances McDormand, as the desperate Abby, had a tremulous sexy vulnerability that neither she nor any other Coen brothers character has displayed since. The Coens began as underhanded craftsmen, but now, ironists to the max, they seem to view everything through a layer of Plexiglas. For all their bravura, they’ve never gotten as close to the action as they did their first time out.