Sometimes a set of circumstances can put you so far in over your head that no matter how many times you attempt to wipe up a mess, it’s perpetually dirty. Whether it happens because of your own doing — or it’s simply chalked up to awful fortune — the only thing you can count on is the darkness getting darker. When executed with certain flair and a distinct eye, this particular trope can make noir films memorable. Blood Simple remains not only one of the best American noir films over the last 35 years, but it also stands as one of the most iconic debuts.
Though the film has a seemingly linear storyline, there is still an eerie sense of unpredictability: the unconventional structure and tone makes sense, all of these years later, when you are familiar with the unmistakable abilities of the movie’s creators. Because I was born the year Blood Simple was released, I never had the chance to watch the directors’ debut in a theater. I wonder how jarring it must have been to see such a refreshingly deft mix of comedy and darkness. Whether it be in a certain camera pan, an awkward but perfect mix of score and soundtrack, or a line delivery from M. Emmet Walsh as one of the grimiest villains of the entire decade of the ’80s, the trademark Coen quirk was always there from the beginning.
With such confidence in its screenplay and in the ability of its actors, the film never looks or feels like it is hindered from the lack of a substantial budget. The perspiring tension from the words on the page translate directly onto the faces of Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, and the aforementioned Walsh as they hurl toward a certain doom. The Coens work with conventional noir building blocks, but place them uniquely enough — especially as the film reaches its climax — that Blood Simple circumvents genre norms.
There have been a considerable amount of impressive — even excellent — first features from a number of filmmakers who would go on to deliver a consistent body of work, but how many can you recall being so good that they actually never have that feeling of separation from the rest of the filmography? That “Oh, but they were trying to find their footing there”? Joel & Ethan Coen’s debut is assured as they come. They may have made better films since, but Blood Simple would never be accused of not being in a class among their best work.