I love the Coen Brothers. I can’t remember when exactly their films came into my life, but I think saw Oh Brother Where Art Thou first, probably in high school. Later on, The Big Lebowski and Fargo became two of my favorite movies ever. So far, I’ve seen twelve out of their seventeen features.
Despite spanning many genres, the Coens’ films all seem to have a little of everything that I love about movies: memorable characters, a weird sense of humor, occasional violence, great song choices, masterful visual storytelling. But I have a hard time articulating much else about why their movies are so great. My hope is that by revisiting (or watching for the first time) each film in order, I can work out the common threads and detect some patterns in the body of work, both cinematically and thematically.
I’ll start with a little background on the filmmakers themselves, just to give myself some context to talk about their first feature-length effort, Blood Simple. Joel and Ethan were born in a suburb of Minneapolis in 1954 and 1957, respectively, to Rena, an art historian, and Edward, an economist at the university of Minnesota. According to wikipedia, the boys had a Vivitar super 8 camera, and used to re-make the movies they saw on television together.
Joel Coen went to NYU film school, where he made a 30-minute thesis film, Soundings. This is the only professional film Joel ever made without Ethan, and based on the IMDB description, that’s probably for the best. Ethan went to Princeton, where he earned a degree in Philosophy. Joel got his start in the film industry as a production assistant in New York, eventually meeting director Sam Raimi while assisting the editor of Evil Dead. Ethan joined him after graduating, and their writing partnership began.
After finishing the script for Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan made a proof-of-concept trailer under the encouragement of Sam Raimi, with Bruce Campbell as a stand-in for the lead role (Campbell had starred in Evil Dead). They used the teaser to pitch to investors, eventually raising about half of a million dollars to put towards production, which began in the fall of 1982 in Texas.
The result is as self-assured a film debut as you could image. Blood Simple opens with the narration:
“The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, President of the United States, or Man of the Year. Something can always go wrong.”
It’s not only a great intro to this particular film, but also to the entire Coen-verse, in which more or less everything goes wrong all of the time.
I had previously thought of 2007’s No Country for Old Men as the Coens’ most purely serious piece, the end result of their progression as filmmakers who previously focused on comedy. This is likely because my point of reference for “early” Coens was Raising Arizona, one of their goofiest. But Blood Simple is the most similar to their Oscar-winning masterpiece than any other of their other films that I’ve seen. In reality, No Country is a return to where they began with Blood Simple: a dark, blood-drenched Southern drama.
Bartender Ray (John Getz) is having an affair with his boss’s young wife Abbey (Frances McDormand). The boss, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) enlists a leisure suit-wearing private detective (M. Emmet Walsh), who finds evidence of the already suspected cheating. Enraged, Marty offers the P.I. ten thousand dollars to kill the pair. This sets off a chain reaction of violence, the characters making increasingly bad decisions out of greed, desperation, and panic. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, “one damned thing leads to another”.
The Coen-verse (I’m just gonna keep using this term) is full of stupid people doing stupid things and getting in way over their heads. Blood Simple is about the things that make us stupid, or in Texas terminology, “simple”: money, love, jealousy, violence.
Many of the Coens’ stories are tightly woven into to their locations: think Los Angeles in The Big Lebowski and the Upper Midwest in Fargo. Like No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple takes place in a Texas where you’re truly on your own: “Go ahead, complain, tell your neighbor, ask for help — watch him fly.” continues the opening voiceover. Law enforcement isn’t likely to show up either; the police are not seen or even mentioned.
Here’s an awesome video I found, explaining how the Coens use storyboards to plan their shots. It’s incredible how much discipline and craftsmanship these guys had right out of the gate in their careers.
- This is also the debut of actress Frances McDormand, who married Joel in 1984 and would go on to star in five more Coen pictures, including her Oscar-winning turn in Fargo.
- Apparently the Coens’ penchant for their characters throwing up started right at the beginning.
- I’ll never think of that Four Tops song the same way again.