MURDER, TEXAS STYLE
by John M. Floyd
For quite a while now, I’ve been thinking of doing a column on a movie that I really liked but that nobody else — at least nobody down here in my end of the forest — seems to have heard much about. It’s Blood Simple (1984), the first movie by the Coen Brothers and (in my opinion) one of the best noir films since the forties.
I’ve been trying to decide what it was about it that made it so good, and I’ve also thought a lot about what made it different from others in the genre. I finally came to the conclusion that what made it different is also what made it good.
O brother, where art thy dialogue?
For one thing, this movie didn’t have a lot of conversations — especially in the second half — and for me that’s usually a disadvantage. Unless it’s something like Apocalypto or Cast Away, I prefer a fair amount of dialogue in a movie, and in any other kind of fiction. (The only film I’ve enjoyed lately that didn’t have much dialogue was The American, with George Clooney.) We writers know, or we should know, that characters talking with each other is one thing that keeps a story moving at a good clip, and holds the reader’s/viewer’s interest. The final 45 minutes of Blood Simple was an odd case: not much was said because not much needed to be said.
The movie also had an extremely slow pace, throughout. That’s something else I usually dislike, but in this one — as in The American — moving at a snail’s crawl seemed just right. The whole movie had a dark, haunting mood that took hold during the first few minutes and stayed there till the final credits, and its long, silent scenes managed to generate some of the most delicious suspense I’ve ever seen.
Shovels, knives, and bulletholes
Don’t be misled by my observation about the slow pacing. This movie had several — not many, but several — absolutely unforgettable scenes. One involved the burial of a guy who just wouldn’t stay dead, and the other involved a knife and a hand and a windowsill. Anybody who’s watched that second scene will know exactly what I mean.
Plotwise, here’s another unusual feature: more than in any other movie I’ve seen, none of the characters ever seemed to know what the other characters were doing or thinking. Every one of the four main characters was always charging off in a different direction, doing things based on wrong information, and the viewer was the only one who knew what was really happening. In a couple of cases, the viewer didn’t know either — and those plot twists made the story even more fun.
Bloody it was, simple it wasn’t
I also remember being impressed by the technical details of the movie. Yes, you could tell it wasn’t a high-budget film, and except for M. Emmet Walsh the acting wasn’t the best, but most of the little things (sound, lighting, camera angles, editing, etc.) that have to work in order to have a good movie . . . well, those were all there. It even had a unique score. Carter Burwell, who did the soundtracks for The Spanish Prisoner and almost all the other Coen films, made sure the music was a major part of this movie. It’s moody and quirky and even creepy at times, and does exactly what it should do: heighten the tension and add to the dark, brooding “feel” of the story.
What’d you say your name was?
Another point that I found interesting was that no one in this movie was famous, or even well-known, at the time. The faces of Walsh, Frances McDormand, John Getz, and Dan Hedaya are easily recognized now, but they weren’t then. There’s no doubt that casting less familiar actors in lead roles can sometimes work — look at Star Wars, Twister, E.T., Dr. No, etc. When superstar salaries don’t bust the budget, I guess there’s more money available for important things, like putting an exciting and believable story on the screen.
Last but certainly not least, this was a Coen Brothers product, and those guys know what they’re doing. (I won’t belabor this, because I wrote a column on them only a few weeks ago — but I should mention that most of their recent movies, including a True Grit remake, do contain big names. With the Coens’ track record, I doubt that fund-raising is the problem it might once have been.)
So here’s my recommendation: if you haven’t seen Blood Simple, give it a try. If you have seen it, watch it again sometime and look for the subtleties. Either way, I think you’ll be reminded that a good crime/suspense story doesn’t always have to have a stellar cast, a lot of subplots, or overly admirable characters. And I bet you’ll enjoy it.