The surprise hit of the 1984 New York Film Festival, "Blood Simple" should garner enough momentum from favorable reviews to see it through the initial slow reception that usually greets such low-budget independent productions. And once it's past the incubation stage, word of mouth should ensure a long, steady run.
There's a lot of blood in "Blood Simple," but there's nothing simple. The complex plot involves a murder, which at first appears to be the perfect crime, but in which everything that could go wrong does. It's packed with coincidence, betrayal, surprise and surrealism. And all this is put together in a film that is so stylistically polished that the polish becomes the entertainment in itself.
At the heart of the story is a classic love triangle. Abby (Frances McDormand), bored as she is blonde, runs off with Ray (John Getz), one of the young bartenders who works in the Texas tavern owned by her husband, Marty (Dan Hedaya). Marty hires a private eye who is even sleazier and more unscrupulous than himself to gather evidence on his wife's infidelity, and then to kill the two lovers.
The detective, Vissar (M. Emmet Walsh), gets a better idea: He doctors photographs of the two lovers so that Marty believes they have been shot. Upon being paid by the husband, the detective pulls out the gun and shoots him. The weapon he uses is a gun he stole from Abby, and Vissar leaves it at the scene of the crime to incriminate her, the most logical suspect. But instead of the police finding Abby's body, Ray does; thinking that the woman he loves has committed murder, he cleans up the blood and drives off with the body to dispose of it. The job becomes more gruesome when, alone on a deserted highway, he discovers that the body is not quite dead.
At no point do any of the characters betray even the dimmest awareness of how preposterous their situations are. And as convincing and strong as all the actors are, they are left in the shadow of M. Emmet Walsh, who gives a great character performance. With his heinous laughter, canary yellow leisure suit, mosquitoes clinging to his sweaty brow as if they were feasting on the sordidness within him, he epitomizes all that is contemptible in America.
But it's hard to pay that much attention to the acting while the camera is up to all its dazzling tricks. There is not one wasted shot in this arty film, nor one that is not a design student's delight. The camera shoots from bizarre angles and dances, prances and even leaps around. It gets down on the floor and shows us the dust swirling around a pair of boots and under a door.
The pregnant dialogue, the brooding close-ups, the ever-thumping ceiling fans and the symbolic props are all part of the fun. At the same time, the ghoulish suspense will have viewers gripping the arms of their theatre chairs. There's a good balance between the disparate elements, and that stylistic give-and-take should make this picture a successful crossover. Starring John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh and Samm-Art Williams. Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Produced by Ethan Coen. A Circle release. Comedy/Thriller. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 96 min