The Coen Brothers' Blood Simple Boldly Announced One of the Most Original Filmmaking Duos Ever

On its 35th anniversary, we look back at the Coens' striking debut feature, which tipped us off to the cinematic delights that would follow.

by | January 18, 2020 | Comments

It’s more than a little surprising to learn that, of all the Coen brothers’ 18 features, Blood Simple is their second-highest rated movie on the Tomatometer. Critically bested only by True Grit (96%), the debut from writing-directing-producing-editing juggernauts Joel and Ethan Coen is Certified Fresh at 94%, beating Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men (93%) and titles that are more synonymous with their tough-to-pin-down, oddball sensibility, whether it’s cult fave The Big Lebowski (82%), dark suburban meditation A Serious Man (90%), high-octane quotable comedy Raising Arizona (91%), or the decidedly un-mainstream thriller that somehow still managed to become mainstream, Fargo (93%). This is by no means a dig at Blood Simple. It’s just that the taut neo-noir likely isn’t the first title brought up when you’re told “I love the Coen brothers” at a party.

Shot in 1982, Blood Simple weaves a worst-case-scenario about illicit lovers played by John Getz and Frances McDormand hiding in plain sight from McDormand’s pugnacious bar-owner husband (Dan Hedaya), while a shady and chatty PI under Hedaya’s employ (M. Emmet Walsh) plays the angles. In typical Coen brothers fashion, the plot twists and turns, and things fall apart, and it’s all laid out with a measured, confident visual style that’s clever but never too showy. To mark its 35th anniversary, let’s take a look at how Blood Simple offered us glimpses of the greatness to come from Hollywood’s most original filmmaking duo.

The Distinct Dialogue

Nobody writes like these guys, and that was pretty clear from the get-go. While Blood Simple’s script has the earmarks of a classic noir — the title nods to detective novelist extraordinaire Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest — the Coens screw with the form, tossing in their own brand of verbal playfulness, like the now-classic Coen-ism of different characters repeating phrases. Take the opening exchange between Getz and McDormand, with Getz repeating he “ain’t no marriage counselor.” It’s echoed later, during an icy moment when Hedaya asks Getz, “What are you, a f–kin’ marriage counselor?” The Coens would go on to use the move a bunch in their follow-up, Raising Arizona (“He’s a little outlaw”), Fargo (“Twin Cities”), and perhaps, most famously, The Big Lebowski, another PI movie of sorts (“This aggression will not stand”). Their inclinations to have fun with verbal ticks and regional American accents and, in the case of M. Emmet Walsh, embarrassing bursts of  laughter, is on display in Blood Simple, too, as is a now-familiar way for them to open a film: with a grizzled narrator speaking quasi-philosophically. That’s just how they would later kick off No Country for Old Men (also over shots of barren Texas landscapes), The Big Lebowski, and The Man Who Wasn’t There.

The Collaborators

USA Films

(Photo by USA Films)

Frances McDormand, who went on to marry Joel Coen, made her onscreen debut in Blood Simple and has since left an indelible mark on the Coen universe in — deep breath — Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo (for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar), The Man Who Wasn’t There, Burn After Reading, and Hail, Caesar!. In an interview about her first role, McDormand explains that her pal Holly Hunter was offered the part, but turned it down to act on Broadway. (As The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr points out in his deep dive into the Coens’ filmography, Hunter, who would go on to co-star in Raising Arizona, does sort of appear in the film, though it’s via an answering machine message.) M. Emmet Walsh, too, returns in said sophomore effort as a cackling co-worker. Blood Simple also marks the first in a long line of collaborations — 16 to date — with the composer Carter Burwell, as well as cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who acted as DP on Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing before becoming a sought-after director in his own right with Get Shorty and Men in Black. Both, like the Coens, were in their 20s during the filming of Blood Simple. Fun fact: Editor Roderick Jaynes — a nom de plume for the Coens — also makes his debut here. Way to go, Roderick.

The Style

Not unlike Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson’s debuts a decade later (Bottle Rocket and Hard Eight, respectively), Blood Simple features some Coen brothers hallmarks, though it’s hardly the film you’d single out to explain them to the uninitiated. (Interestingly, all three — sorry, four — filmmakers’ followups put them on the pop culture map with intoxicating aesthetics that aspiring directors would ape.) Yet those traces are there — the facial shadows, the shaky-cam that runs throughout Raising Arizona, the driving shot on a desolate road that’s in a bunch of their features, the emanating light (from under doors, in particular) used to such thrilling effect in No Country for Old Men. Beyond the visuals, there’s a nifty homage to Blood Simple in Fargo — both have characters moving a body on the side of the road while a car fast approaches at night — and narratively, no one in Blood Simple has any idea what the other is up to, a misunderstanding they’d explore often in the years to come, most heavily in Burn After Reading.

The Wicked Sense of Humor

On paper, there’s nothing funny about jamming someone in a wood chipper (Fargo), shooting them when they’ve got a dopey smile plastered on their face (Burn After Reading), or biting off their ear (The Big Lebowski). Of course there’s not. But when it suits their vision, the Coens have an uncanny knack for rendering hyper-violent moments into something absurd, even oddly humorous. At the end of Blood Simple — spoiler alert — McDormand stabs through Walsh’s hand, leaving it impaled on a windowsill and him trapped in an adjacent room, firing shots blindly through drywall, hoping to strike McDormand. It’s tense, but Walsh’s struggle — up until now, he’s been very much in charge — in this insane, almost slasher movie-like situation is more than a bit amusing. When his fate is set — it’s not good — Blood Simple fades to black, hitting us with the film’s soundtrack mantra, the upbeat soul classic  “It’s the Same Old Song” by the Four Tops, a delicious juxtaposition.

The Indie Spirit

 (c)USA Films courtesy Everett Collection

(Photo by (c) USA Films courtesy Everett Collection)

The Coens spent a year trying to secure the $1.5-mil they needed to make Blood Simple, showing potential investors a homemade trailer to pique financial interests. While on set in Austin, apparently not everyone was convinced this peculiar, low-budget project by two young first-timers was aboveboard: M. Emmet Walsh says he wouldn’t take their $700 check, presumably fearing it’d bounce, and demanded cash instead. While the Coens’ stock has skyrocketed in the decades since (they are now among the few who can work with anyone they want and make virtually any movie they want), the peculiarity that critics loved about Blood Simple hasn’t waned. To this day, there’s an outsider, even defiant originality that runs throughout their films, and we’d be completely shocked if that ever changes.

Blood Simple was released on January 18, 1985.


Blood Simple (1984)

Adjusted Score: 102.504%
Critics Consensus: Brutally violent and shockingly funny in equal measure, Blood Simple offers early evidence of the Coen Brothers' twisted sensibilities and filmmaking ingenuity.
Synopsis: In the first film of brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, M. Emmett Walsh plays Visser, an unscrupulous private eye... [More]
Directed By: Joel Coen

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

marvel cinematic universe Super Bowl VH1 Stephen King Family comic books GLAAD Star Wars Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt superman discovery sag awards Turner YouTube Red The Walt Disney Company Dark Horse Comics Elton John Mindy Kaling TNT Columbia Pictures video japanese dragons foreign Red Carpet CBS south america travel Alien Mudbound emmy awards Britbox Paramount new star wars movies OneApp rt archives Winter TV kaiju Hear Us Out Anna Paquin Classic Film scorecard Cartoon Network FX game show dramedy A24 YA Netflix Christmas movies USA Funimation laika Nickelodeon zombies Musicals VICE Masterpiece Mystery sports Sundance Now PlayStation Pride Month Crackle Turner Classic Movies 4/20 Trivia joker serial killer scary movies NYCC Video Games slashers Spike spider-man parents Winners DC streaming service richard e. Grant Awards Music Superheroes TLC Shondaland cancelled Tubi chucky Crunchyroll Rom-Com franchise Marathons reboot children's TV toy story OWN Horror quibi new zealand Emmys Country crime Paramount Network Teen ViacomCBS Reality Competition Song of Ice and Fire aliens Pirates Valentine's Day Sundance TV strong female leads saw 93rd Oscars canceled TV shows anime HBO Go Musical Tumblr WarnerMedia Comedy Apple TV Plus fresh Mary poppins disaster X-Men Disney+ Disney Plus ITV LGBTQ rom-coms facebook italian Interview National Geographic satire dark indie football TV renewals El Rey WGN blockbusters Lifetime Opinion scene in color Comic-Con@Home 2021 Infographic PBS halloween criterion TCA Winter 2020 venice twilight See It Skip It Apple international Endgame unscripted Mary Tyler Moore know your critic TCA Awards Certified Fresh binge dc Ghostbusters Fantasy TV movies Universal CW Seed 1990s Esquire movie CMT razzies ABC Signature Spring TV SXSW olympics cops toronto BBC One docudrama cats TCA screen actors guild Amazon Prime Video Photos hollywood American Society of Cinematographers Syfy Television Critics Association worst movies BAFTA Rock high school AMC singing competition 2018 Fox News prank Travel Channel adaptation Grammys DC Comics versus Comics on TV comedies period drama Countdown The Arrangement VOD 90s Lionsgate MCU Nominations boxoffice Extras TCM reviews golden globes DC Universe independent thriller President telelvision Hulu Peacock TCA 2017 Quiz award winner adenture 72 Emmy Awards Sony Pictures Nat Geo canceled remakes sitcom dogs Tokyo Olympics stop motion game of thrones GoT romance Arrowverse IFC Animation Apple TV+ YouTube Ovation godzilla mission: impossible pirates of the caribbean Creative Arts Emmys comic universal monsters Film Festival Disney Channel Vudu films Brie Larson spinoff war theme song japan nfl Broadway natural history hidden camera ABC Family Bravo comiccon Pop ID Superheroe australia Hallmark Sundance 2016 Tarantino MTV hist nature cartoon Trophy Talk Polls and Games worst free movies 2020 007 Schedule Best and Worst SDCC The Purge Sci-Fi Biopics batman historical drama transformers 24 frames mutant series green book boxing cooking ghosts target Avengers Holiday documentary tv talk Star Trek Food Network Toys french Walt Disney Pictures miniseries 2015 Rocky blockbuster obituary Shudder Acorn TV Lifetime Christmas movies legend critics kong space casting zero dark thirty Ellie Kemper San Diego Comic-Con social media aapi documentaries LGBT RT History CBS All Access revenge Women's History Month spy thriller BBC SundanceTV cars E3 cults science fiction sequel Wes Anderson Writers Guild of America elevated horror First Reviews cancelled TV shows Martial Arts Film book adaptation superhero Cosplay new york book The Walking Dead Heroines 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards festival FX on Hulu king kong breaking bad Christmas politics Netflix Action CNN BET Awards Box Office Pet Sematary Cannes A&E diversity psychological thriller YouTube Premium Marvel Television finale vampires TV heist movie Tomatazos fast and furious all-time Legendary spanish Academy Awards HBO Max based on movie justice league stoner HBO Black Mirror cancelled TV series animated rotten Fox Searchlight jurassic park Exclusive Video Fall TV screenings Mary Poppins Returns halloween tv anthology blaxploitation talk show video on demand Black History Month name the review Thanksgiving robots Captain marvel 2021 BBC America Amazon docuseries lord of the rings Adult Swim Reality kids streaming movies renewed TV shows james bond cinemax TV Land Watching Series popular Marvel Studios USA Network Starz Binge Guide Election PaleyFest ABC doctor who biography Logo Sneak Peek Trailer 2019 Discovery Channel supernatural stand-up comedy streaming child's play cancelled television 45 hispanic witnail crime thriller 21st Century Fox Pacific Islander Summer Paramount Plus a nightmare on elm street concert jamie lee curtis political drama IFC Films what to watch Warner Bros. festivals The CW Showtime History television The Academy movies harry potter women FOX christmas movies zombie Comic Book Hallmark Christmas movies nbcuniversal asian-american ratings GIFs classics Pop TV NBC Calendar mockumentary MSNBC Character Guide archives 71st Emmy Awards true crime Baby Yoda TIFF deadpool crime drama latino golden globe awards Freeform New York Comic Con RT21 die hard NBA psycho Marvel Television Academy spanish language BET Western werewolf Drama DGA Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Epix 99% DirecTV composers TBS Awards Tour wonder woman spain E! live action Rocketman Premiere Dates rotten movies we love Disney First Look indiana jones dceu trailers Comedy Central Year in Review Disney streaming service Disney Plus 20th Century Fox Oscars technology monster movies suspense sequels Chernobyl Kids & Family king arthur Amazon Studios adventure romantic comedy basketball Set visit TV One teaser ESPN Spectrum Originals TruTV directors Image Comics The Witch APB crossover police drama comics Emmy Nominations Podcast best 2017 Holidays Amazon Prime news FXX black Lucasfilm Pixar medical drama