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'Blood Simple': A Story Worth Repeating

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2000


    'Blood Simple' Dan Hedaya and Frances McDormand in a film that's still entertaining after all these years. (USA Films)
Here's what's really new about the rerelease of the Coen Brothers' 1984 debut film, "Blood Simple," digitally restored and reedited for clarity and speed: not a damn thing.

Nada, nothing, zilch. Or at least nada, nothing, zilch that you'll notice. According to the press release, some scenes have been shortened, some musical cues improved and the whole thing generally cleaned up, and there's an amusing mock interview with the pseudo-"restorer." None of this will even register.

Meanwhile, you'll have the same great time.

Basically, it's still a riff on the inevitability of death and Texas. And in Texas, son, you're on your own, as the detective Loren Visser says with one of his wheezy, sardonic laughs in the early going. Abandon hope, ye who enter the Lone Star State, and pull up to the bar of the Neon Boot for a cold bottle of Jax. What place is this? Where are we now? The news is bad: We are in a dark, carbuncular, cynical, rancid universe. We're in noir hell, where all motives are misunderstood, all love turns foul, all trust twists into deceit, the best-laid plans tangle like barbed wire, and the tune on the juke, over and over again, twanging into the blue night, is that country classic "I'm Just a Bug on the Windshield of Life."

Nearly everybody ends up dead, in some spectacular fashion, and when the one survivor turns a corner to look upon the face of her antagonist, hoping at last to understand everything, it turns out to be somebody she didn't even know existed, and the stunned look on her face conveys that she understands nothing. The message of the movie: "Ha, ha, joke's on you."

The movie is essentially a smartass re-imagining of the great James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," with a new and even darker plot strand added. In Cain's classic, a drifter and a wife fell in love and teamed up to murder her hubby, the abusive owner of a roadhouse. The Coen version goes one better: same roadhouse, same relationship between wife and drifter (a bartender now), but it's the husband who tries to murder them.

The hired killer--a sleazy private eye who drives a VW Beetle to symbolize his order in the place of things; he's a bug--plays everyone for suckers, to make off with 10 grand and nothing pointing at him. See, he thinks he's smarter than everyone, and he is, but he's not smarter than that immense jokester Mr. Fate, who is so busily bouncing the plot off three walls into some of the most crazed rebounds on record.

It's a movie full of great moments, looking just as fresh as they did in 1984, when the Coens--Joel at that time was an assistant editor on splatter films, Ethan a statistical typist at Macy's--created their dark tapestry. Visser (M. Emmet Walsh, still sweating and wheezing his way around like a slug of pure slimy squalor) still gets his hand pinned to the windowsill by a hunting knife, pounds and shoots his way free and hunts his antagonist by blowing holes in the dark wall with a .45.

Marty (Dan Hedaya, with a bristle on his chin so intense it should be called a 1 o'clock shadow or maybe a 10 a.m. shadow) still gets buried alive, oozing blood and struggling against his fate, and Ray the bartender (John Getz) still conks him on the head with a shovel as he tries to climb from the grave. As for Ray, he still stands there, confessing his love for Abby (Frances McDormand, soon to become and now still Mrs. Joel Coen), who he thinks has killed her husband, when the high-powered rifle bullet sails through the window and lances him like a boil.

What good fun!

What a saucy crew!

I love the unsettling details. Marty's name isn't Marty O'Donnell, it's Julian Marty, and everybody calls him Marty, even though he's the man of power. Hedaya went on to a fabulous, still strong-running career, but he's so great here: feral, suspicious, sly, mean, cowardly, face eternally blackened by that smear of beard. And the great and wondrous Walsh: so avuncular, so moist with corruption, so unbrushed of teeth and unscrubbed of sin, in his cheesy polyester western suits (he doesn't even wear boots!). And Ray: Lord God, do they make them any dumber than Ray, eternal chump, doomed by love from the start? It's so very nice to have these old friends back again.

Of course the Coens went on to even more greatness, climaxing in the wondrous "Fargo" of a few years back, and they're about to release a new film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," which they describe as the third in their "hayseed trilogy" after this film and "Raising Arizona." I can't hardly wait.

BLOOD SIMPLE (87 minutes,) is rated R for some violence but even more ominous menace.


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