Watching the Coen Bros.’ Blood Simple for the first time since it appeared in 1984, I was immediately struck by what a brilliantly calculated calling card the film was. As good as it is on its own merits, the film works as the Coens’ announcement of themselves to the moviegoing world—showing off, to the best of their ability on a low budget, exactly what they had to offer the movies. So much of what they indeed proved they did (and do) have to offer is in—even if only in sketchbook form—this one very savvy show-off movie. It constantly draws attention to itself and the filmmakers, showing over and over again how clever and original it is. I can only think of two other films that have been so effectively used in this manner—Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave (1995) and the Wachowski Brothers’ Bound (1996). (Burgeoning filmmakers take note of just how successfully these films launched their makers’ careers.)
As a movie in and of itself, Blood Simple is almost impossibly entertaining. Yes, its story—of a bad husband (Dan Hedaya) whose wife (Frances McDormand) runs off with one of her bar-owner spouse’s bartenders (John Getz)—is little more than an exercise in James M. Cain-styled noir, as is the husband’s decision to have a corrupt private eye (M. Emmett Walsh) agree to kill the duo. But what makes it work is the manner in which the Coens’ screenplay constantly turns on itself with alarming precision, the quirky cynicism of the dialogue and the memorable ways in which the film is shot. There are some obvious budgetary constrictions, but these fall into insignificance thanks to the cumulative effect of the whole film. In fact, it’s a virtual textbook of how to make a unique film with very little money—and one of the best debut works around.