The Coen Brothers’ first film is streaming on HBO Max and Criterion
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Blood Simple is one of the best things you can watch on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel right now. The Warner Media–owned streamer’s hefty back-catalogue and prestige outlet include the Coen Brothers’ first feature as part of your standard subscriptions, and it’s worth checking out.
This tale of marital duplicity, bloody vengeance, and small-time criminal ineptitude launched the filmmaking duo’s careers with a definitive bang. It’s a fascinating part of their oeuvre and a beautiful standalone indie crime thriller.
The sleeper hit of 1984
In their first feature, Joel and Ethan Coen tell a relatively simple story of jealousy and revenge. When small-town bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) finds out his young wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him with his employee Ray (John Getz), he hires a local P.I. to kill the two lovers.
What should be a simple hit spins out of control fast in the sweaty Texas town. No one trusts anyone in this neo-noir crime thriller, nor should they. Sleazy private dick Lorren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) has no real code. “If the pay’s right, and it’s legal, I’ll do it” becomes, “Well, if the pay’s right, I’ll do it” without much resistance.
Every detail feels completely intentional in Blood Simple.
You can already spot the Coens’ incredible eye for detail and efficient storytelling. The film comes in at a tight 95 minutes, with not a moment wasted. Their camera lingers exactly where it needs to: on a bartender’s trendy pair of high tops, on a growing pool of blood, on fish left to fester for days, on streams of light seeping through bullet holes.
Every artistic choice packs a punch and feels measured, from the recurring use of The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song,” to the jarring and harsh sound of a mosquito light as it kills, to the haunting score of frequent Coens collaborator Carter Burwell. (It was Burwell’s first film score, and he went on to score numerous other major films, earning two Oscar nominations along the way.)
Check out: Everything you can watch on HBO Max
Blood Simple didn’t do great numbers at the box office, but it’s no surprise that it was a critical hit, introducing two visionary filmmakers to the world. Years later, it got the Criterion Collection treatment in recognition of its status as a contemporary classic.
Pitch-black humor at its best
Virtually every Coen Brothers film is a comedy. Even films like Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and A Serious Man find humor in tragedy, discomfort, violence, the mundane, and horror.
That fresh tonal balance is on display immediately in Blood Simple.
Things go from bad to worse in moments when characters just need a break. We watch, comfortable and safe, as tragicomic regular folks make the same mistakes we probably would in their shoes. Or are subject to just plain bad luck. What if your car wouldn’t start after you’d buried a body in a farmer’s field? It’s hard not to laugh as Ray’s ignition sputters, threatening to leave him in the lurch.
The Coens are great at recurring bits that grow funnier over time. An angry character storming off in a car only to have to pull a u-turn at top speed when he hits a dead end is a funny enough gag on its own. It’s even funnier when repeated a few scenes later though.
This comical mean streak runs through the film and is deeply satisfying. Like a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy, Blood Simple gives us all the information while keeping its players in the sweaty, overheating dark.
A herald of more great films to come
You don’t have to squint too hard to see Blood Simple as a kind of blueprint for later Coen brothers films.
It certainly has a roughness that they smoothed out over the years. But it’s clearly playing in the same sandbox as other Coens titles too. The inept backstabbing of Fargo and No Country for Old Men, the sweaty paranoia of Barton Fink, the modern spin on noir mystery of The Big Lebowski, the mythologized south of O, Brother, Where Art Thou? — it’s all here.
Frances McDormand gives an incredible performance in her first onscreen role.
Blood Simple also introduced the world to Frances McDormand, who would go on to star in numerous Coen films, win four Academy Awards, and become one of the greatest actresses of her generation.
As Abby, the then 27-year-old McDormand is staggeringly good. Despite her young age, she sports a knowing world-weariness that makes Abby’s plight land with so much weight. We want the men in her life to do right by her, and we hate them for failing so spectacularly.
There’s no shortage of great Coen Brothers material out there. But it’s amazing to see them cementing creative partnerships and establishing a signature style right out the gate. In Blood Simple, they’re already on fire.