Blood Simple

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The legendary M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple.
  • The legendary M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple.
It’s typical of the Coen brothers’ unflagging determination to fuck with our heads that the recently released director’s cut of their debut feature, Blood Simple (1984), is actually shorter than the original theatrical version.

After all, the whole point of a director’s cut is to settle scores and redress possible errors in judgment, to restore scenes that were eliminated by evil studio heads, delusional producers’ attempts at creative input and/or the last-minute (and often justified) qualms of the director himself. But the brothers Ethan (who produced and co-wrote) and Joel (who directed and co-wrote) have chosen to subtract rather than add, snipping footage (as they wrote in the preface to the film’s published screenplay) “in order to more quickly get to the carnage, which (is) the film’s raison d’être.”

The Coens know that we know that they know that the real reason the movie is being re-released now is to enable their newly enlarged, post-Fargo audience to see one of their best films in the manner intended — on the big screen, in a cool print. Any doubt about their attitude toward the conventional director’s cut is quickly scuttled by an added, tongue-in-cheek prologue wherein a sententious, pipe-smoking gent prattles on about the film’s enormous initial commercial success (which isn’t true) and about its great significance (which isn’t entirely untrue).

The significance of Blood Simple isn’t just its standing as a prototype indie film, but the way it captured a new sensibility as the first post-neo-noir. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) may have updated the genre by moving the lurking nihilism of classic noir to center stage, but in each the protagonist’s ineffectuality was still a reason to be moved. The Coen film scoops out the old moral messiness and concentrates on the mechanics of the ride. We get off on its cleverness without really caring who makes it to the end of its twisty plot. The film’s dim “hero” (John Getz) and inscrutable femme fatale (Frances McDormand) are wafer-thin constructs, while the disposable husband (Dan Hedaya) is the kind of one-note slimeball who’s just begging to be offed (and the Coens oblige us by killing him twice).

Only the great character actor E. Emmet Walsh is a wholly original creation, a soulless monster disguised as a whimsical rube, pulling all the plot strings and delivering the movie’s pitch-perfect punch line. It’s all a big joke, a little callow but expertly done, and affording the viewer the enjoyable experience of being mercilessly manipulated.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward), in the premiere of its fall season, Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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