Three Decades on, the Coens’ ‘Blood Simple’ Still Impresses


Over three decades, Joel and Ethan Coen have established a distinctive sensibility marked by sidewinding plots, an ironic narrative distance often belied by genuine affection for their characters, and a particular talent for conveying those characters’ voices. Their work also exhibits a passion for the medium and history of film itself.

Blood Simple, the Coens’ sharp film noir debut, displays all these traits and many other hallmarks: unexpected violence, old-coot cowboys, funny dialogue, striking imagery, fat men in suits screaming, double-crosses, and Frances McDormand. Texas bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires Loren, a real grubworm of a P.I. (good old M. Emmet Walsh), to kill his wife, Abby (McDormand), and her lover, Ray (John Getz). Instead, Loren shoots Marty and plants evidence incriminating Abby. What follows is a cascading series of failures in which none of the characters knows what’s actually happening and nobody is asking the right questions. The film’s taut climax, an outburst of gore and revelation, is as suspenseful as anything the Coens have produced since.

A new 4K restoration showcases the film’s gorgeous photography — fellow director Barry Sonnenfeld served as cinematographer, as he would for the Coens’ two subsequent films; people remember his dynamic visuals and moving cameras, though few recall that the versatile Sonnenfeld was also responsible for the handsome luster of Miller’s Crossing.

The shoestring budget here only seems to have sparked his imagination, as he found workarounds for equipment he lacked — a camera mounted on a two-by-four replaced a Steadicam, for instance.

Though the film has a few exposed seams, it’s tightly composed and beautifully shot in a way that easily rivals more expensive features.

Blood Simple

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Janus Films

Opens July 1, Film Forum