With a Different Meaning Since You've Been Gone
If you’re a character in a Coen Brothers movie, there will likely be a moment when you discover that you’re all alone in the world—or at least, that very minute, when it would benefit to have other people around you—and even if it’s only temporary your shoulders will sag with a sort of existential dread. But then you pick up and you keep moving, because there’s nothing else you can do. Jobs have to be done, messes have to be cleaned up, wrongs have to be made right.
Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers' feature debut, is a confluence of stunning firsts--Frances McDormand's first movie role, Carter Burwell's first time composing a film score, Barry Sonnenfeld's first feature as a cinematographer. In the book My First Movie, Joel Coen admitted it had been the first time he had even been on a movie set. It's as spare a film as they've ever made (so far), clocking in at just over ninety minutes, and economical with both characters and dialogue. There are no parables or metaphors to be found, and the only lesson that can be taken away from it comes from the opening narration by M. Emmet Walsh: "Down here, you're on your own."
No time is wasted setting up the plot, as it opens with Abby (Frances McDormand) complaining about her husband to Ray (John Getz), who happens to work for him. Ray, spiritual kin to Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men in that they're both serious, laconic, and averse to admitting when they're shaken up, tells Abby that although he has no opinion on her marriage, he likes her. They go to bed together, though that decision seems driven less by desire and more by simply not knowing what else to do.
This proves to be remarkably bad timing on Ray's part, as Abby's husband, Marty (Dan Hedaya at possibly his scuzziest), assuming she's already been having an affair, has hired a private detective to follow her. The detective, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), takes a strange delight in confirming Marty's suspicions, providing him with photographic proof even though he never asked for it. "Irritated" by his wife and employee's treachery, Marty continues to retain the exceedingly, creepily good-humored Visser for a further task. Preferring to do less work for more money (and maybe cause a little mayhem just for fun), Visser shows Marty some doctored "crime scene" photos of Abby and Ray, then shoots him, with a gun stolen from Abby's purse. Ray, exhibiting yet more bad timing, discovers both Abby's gun and Marty's body (though he doesn't check to see if he's actually dead), and, out of affection for Abby despite his horror at what he thinks she's done, tries to get dispose of the corpse. On the road, however, he soon realizes the mess he has to clean up is even bigger than he thought.
The original poster and VHS artwork for the movie is misleading, showing a couple passionately embracing, the woman wearing harlot-red stilettos with a gun falling out of a purse at her feet. The only thing that's accurate about it is that Abby carries a gun in her purse. Other than that, in her drab sweaters and granny nightgowns, she's hardly anyone's idea of a siren who drives men to commit murder. The only person who suggests that Abby is a manipulative femme fatale is Marty, who, as her estranged husband, might have a somewhat biased point of view.
As far as passion is concerned, well, I suppose there's a little of that, but not the all-consuming, burn everything around it kind you usually find in film noir. Though they sleep together, there's a wariness and distance between Abby and Ray, to the point where Ray is reluctant to invite her to share his bed, even though they've had sex before. Without even knowing what's really going on (and they never do), they don't seem to trust each other very much. When Abby tells Ray that she wants to leave town with him--while not even realizing that Marty is dead--fear glimmers in Ray's eyes. He may have feelings for her, may even love her, but she's caused him enough trouble already.
All a little companionship has gotten Ray is discovering how difficult it is to clean up a lot of blood, and how hard people die. Sometimes they try to crawl away. Sometimes they try to grab at your leg in blind terror. Sometimes they vomit blood down your shoulder. And sometimes, they scream even when their mouth is filled with dirt. That, to Ray's estimation, is what getting tangled up with Abby has gotten him. Well, that and a rifle blast to the back, but at least it's quick for him, as opposed to Marty, and Loren Visser, the agent of all this chaos.
Though they have yet to make another movie as lean and straightforward as Blood Simple, there are already some "Coen touches" present. There's the sense of desolate isolation which would later show up in Fargo and No Country for Old Men, the abrupt, ambiguous ending of No Country and A Serious Man, and their signature little moments of humor to alleviate the bleakness, like the running gag of characters not realizing that Ray's house is on a dead end street, forcing them to do a dramatic, tire screeching u-turn.
And, of course, there's the notion that, no matter how clever we think we are, we're not masters of our own fate. Dominoes we didn't even know were stacked behind us can come tumbling down, and we won't realize it until they're already on top of us. Despite Marty's warnings, and Ray's fear and mistrust of her, in the end Abby doesn't even know that Marty is dead, let alone that Ray thinks she killed him. She doesn't know that the man she shoots isn't Marty, but the man he hired to kill her, whom she's never seen or heard of. There's no one left alive to explain things to her. A dying Visser cackles in glee when he realizes Abby's mistake, and because he knows the truth: down here, she's on her own.