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150 Films #16: Blood Simple (1984)

As a preamble, let me just discuss the year-long gap between reviews. It began, as so many things do, with fear. Only 10% of the way through this project, it began to occur to me that I’d already started to repeat myself. I examined my shelf of wonders, at the films that lay ahead, and thought I like a lot of movies with similar themes, similar stories, in similar genres, at times by the same filmmakers—and I like all of these films for roughly similar reasons.

When I decided to combine The Big Lebowski with The Big Sleep and talk about their protagonists’ shared moral codes and interest in the truth above all things. This will be a recurring theme in many 150 Films selections, and it won’t be the only recurring theme. I worried less about boring readers through repetition—one advantage of having no readers is that nobody will get bored—than boring myself. I thought of different modes of attack—for instance, grouping the movies by five and doing a single essay on the whole group—and then started to get overwhelmed by this entirely self-imposed project.

So… I put off the next post. And put it off, and put it off, until I more or less forgot about it. I started writing paleo food reviews as a stopgap while I regrouped, and then I stopped writing those. And then I forgot about them, too, and as is often the case with this blog, it took a back burner to other priorities. Lately, though, I’ve found myself doing nothing instead of focusing on other priorities, so I’m back, because at least this is something. I can flex my writing muscles and my critical analysis muscles, give myself an excuse to watch movies that were once (and might still be) meaningful to me, and have an outlet to ramble about myself until I get something better going.

Oh, and self-promotion. Nobody reads this blog, and I don’t know how to get them to, but it’s here. As I try to get something real going with my writing, I can point people to this place because I don’t want strangers on my Facebook friends list, and after trying to get into Twitter to boost my “social media” profile, I found I’m more of a passive observer than an active participant. So this is it. My place.

Finally, that nebulous thought solidified over the past few weeks: this is my place. I don’t need to overwhelm myself with some bullshit I chose to do. I don’t need to wax poetic for paragraph after paragraph if I have little to say because I’ve said it all before. These reviews could be one sentence long if I want them to be. Nobody’s paying me or grading me on my content, and if someone were to do either, that would be their nightmare, not mine. With that glorious sense of freedom restored, I’ve decided to resurrect this project, those paleo reviews, and maybe even—gasp!!—some of those cranky posts about politics, religion, and how much I like Ayn Rand. The events of the past few months have given me a metric ass-tonne to complain about, so why am I ranting in private? Why am I not trying to pick fights against Sean Spicer or the morons in the “Antifa” movement? Isn’t that how people boost their social media profiles?

It sure is! But first, let me talk briefly about a great, great film called Blood Simple.

If The Big Lebowski and The Big Sleep were about relentless pursuit of the truth, Blood Simple gives us a horrific funhouse mirror: what happens when characters assume the truth without really knowing?

From beginning to end, this is a film about characters who never know enough. At the center of the film are Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand), who are having an affair under the nose of Abby’s wife and Ray’s employer, shady bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya). As is the case with so many relationships, they have a pretty serious communication problem, and everything they don’t know—about each other, about Marty, and about all that’s happening around them—dooms them.

Marty hires shady P.I. Loren Visser (a fantastic M. Emmett Walsh) to confirm the affair. Then, he hires Visser to murder the couple. Like the couple, Julian’s ignorance begins his downfall. While he’s off establishing an alibi, Visser gets an idea of his own: he steals Abby’s revolver, doctors photos of the sleeping couple so they look dead, collects his pay from Marty—and then shoots him, leaving the gun to implicate Abby.

That very night, Ray comes to the bar looking for his last paycheck; instead, he finds the bleeding body of Marty, he finds Abby’s gun, and he knows—knows—what she’s done. He works hard to cover up the murder, cleaning up the blood, incinerating the cleaning supplies, and driving the body out into the Texas country to bury in a field. But just as he doesn’t know Abby committed the murder, he doesn’t know Marty is still alive. Barely mobile, but alive, conscious, and trying to escape his inevitable fate. Ray is forced to finish the job, deluding himself into thinking this will bind his fate with Abby’s.

Abby, meanwhile, discovers Marty missing and blood in the bar. She knows—knows—what Ray has done. “I cleaned up your mess,” Ray had told a confused Abby, who now thinks she knows what he meant. Even when they try to get on the same page, both leave the conversation thinking the other is a killer. Visser, too, has convinced himself this couple knows more than they do, that they know about his role in Marty’s murder, that they have a doctored photo missing from his collection. When Ray discovers the photo in Marty’s safe, he tries to warn Abby, who takes it as a threat. When Visser, from across the street with a high-powered rifle, shoots Ray dead in front of her, she takes it as confirmation that Marty is indeed alive and seeking revenge.

During the chilling climax, Abby never once sees Visser. When she finally shoots him through the bathroom door and calls out, “I’m not afraid of you, Marty!” Visser can only laugh. As he lay dying under the bathroom sink, he’s the only character who has enough information to put all the pieces together, and he’ll die before Abby even has a clue. The strange laugh—not Marty’s—startles Abby, who for the first time has realized she’s been battling a stranger.

It’s funny, because I see so many folks—critics or otherwise—complain about the contrivance of so many movies and television shows: “There would be no plot if one of these idiots would just open their mouths and talk to each other.” This is a variation on Roger Ebert’s famous “Idiot Plot,” which posits that certain plots only work because every character involved is an idiot. Since then, writers have figured out how to skirt the Idiot Plot: populate it with people who are just smart enough, but still too dumb to ask questions or talk to other characters. I’m sure TV Tropes or some other place has coined a term for this variation, but I don’t care enough to find out.

Blood Simple shows, perhaps better than any other film, how effective this sort of story can be—as long as the characters have reasons for not communicating. In this case, the characters either have no reason to question (such as Marty not suspecting Visser’s double-cross) or leap to the conclusion that the other characters know things they don’t (like Ray assuming Abby shot Marty). It’s an auspicious debut for the Coens, whose trademark odd characters and deceptively complex plotting are already on display.

If I love a film like All the President’s Men or the Coens’ own Big Lebowski for its champions of the truth, I love Blood Simple for showing the extreme consequences of deception and assumption.

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: Boiler Room (2000)

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