Monday, April 20, 2009

The Movies of My Life

I’ve been a fan of the Coen brothers forever. I began with their second feature, Raising Arizona, and then quickly backtracked to their debut, the great “Texas Noir” Blood Simple. It immediately became my favorite of their films, and nothing they’ve done since has dislodged it.

It was well received when it came out, but critics had a hard time pigeon-holing it. For a bloody thriller, it had perhaps a few too many laughs in it…. But to call it a comedy wasn’t right, either….

God, where to start? The plot, on the surface is pretty straightforward. A man hires someone to kill his wife and her lover. That doesn’t begin to tell it, as anyone who has seen the film can tell you. Blood Simple’s plot is at the same time complicated and easy to follow. That sounds crazy, but I swear its true.

It all hinges on a double cross by the hired killer, a sleazy private eye played memorably by M. Emmet Walsh. I did a small feature on this character before, and I’m going to revisit what I wrote then about my favorite moment from the initial conversation between him and the husband.

“I’ve got a job for you.”

“Well, if the pay’s right, and it’s legal, I’ll do it.”

“It’s not strictly legal.”

“Well, if the pay’s right, I’ll do it.”

Not strictly legal - I love that.

The film is at it’s best when Walsh is onscreen, as he double-crosses the husband, then finds that he needs to go ahead with the original plan, after all.

The two lovers are not quite as interesting in my estimation. The wife, Abby is played by Mrs. Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, and she is fine. The lover, Ray, played by John Getz is the film’s one weak point. One review I read described him as “dry mouthed”, and I thinks that’s a good way of putting it. He’s just way too bland. In my minds eye, I’ve always seen Tommy Lee Jones in this role.

The great joy of watching this film is the fact that nobody in it has a clue what’s going on. The PI kills the husband (at least he thinks he did). The lover finds the body and thinks the wife did it. The PI comes back for a crucial piece of evidence that he’s forgotten, and finds the body gone. The lover finds that the husband wasn't as dead as he thought. The wife knows that something has happened, doesn’t know what, but thinks her lover did it – whatever it was.

This all leads to a climax that is just astounding in its construction. Roger Ebert described it thusly:

“Consider the famous sequence in which a man is in one room and his hand is nailed to the windowsill in another room. How he got into that predicament, and how he tries to get out of it, all makes perfect sense when you see the film. But if you got an assignment in a film class that began with a close-up of that hand snaking in through the window and being nailed down, how easy would it be to write the setup scenes?"

As I said at the top, this is still my favorite Coen film. They certainly went on to bigger things, but not necessarily better. Fargo and No Country for Old Men are likely the brothers’ best known and most well regarded films, and both come from the same template as Blood Simple.

Check it out, if you haven’t already.

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