A rich but jealous man hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her new man. But, when blood is involved, nothing is simple.
Most movie mysteries are told from the inside. We, the audience, along with a detective character, are confronted with baffling circumstances and gradually piece together the clues, finally learning the truth just as the hero or heroine does, walking away unscathed from the last-reel revelations. Blood Simple, the 1983 debut feature of the Coen Brothers, is not like that. For a change, we're in a privileged position, always knowing more than the characters we're following, understanding their wrong-headed thought processes, appreciating the ironies they miss, seeing where a slightly different bit of behaviour would have saved lives or led to happier endings.
Typical of the Coen approach is the handling of a traditional thriller gimmick (cf: the finale of Strangers On A Train) of the incriminating item left at the scene of the crime, which forces the killer to return and imperil himself to cover up. Murderous private eye Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) leaves his distinctive Man Of The Year cigarette lighter under a clump of fresh-caught fish in the office where he has put a bullet into bar-owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), and later assumes lovers Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) know he is a killer because they have this vital clue. But the lighter remains unnoticed under the fish throughout the film, and Visser isn't even a killer, having left Marty wounded only for Ray to come along and, under the impression that Abby has tried to do away with her husband, finish him off by burying him alive. At every turn of this complex plot tangle, we know what's going on — but none of the characters ever get the big picture, except (perhaps) Visser on the point of death after he has been shot by Abby under the mistaken impression that he is her husband. "I'm not afraid of you, Marty," she says. Chortling, Visser responds, "Well, ma'am, if I see him, I'll sure give him the message."
The title is an expression the Coens found in the stories of hard-boiled writer Dashiell Hammett, who would later inspire their gangster epic Miller's Crossing, and refers to a state of mind whereby a person is so caught up in the need for violence — or sex, money, revenge, status — that he or she loses his or her wits and is destroyed.
The setting is Texas, but not the wide-open state of numberless Westerns. This is a world of dark, dark desert nights, where unlit roads cross empty spaces. Marty, proprietor of a bar named Neon Boots, has hired Visser to prove that his wife is an adulteress, though it's possible that it's only this paranoia that drives her to get together with dim-bulb bartender Ray. Humiliated when Abby breaks his "pussy finger" (more relevantly, his trigger finger) and walks out, Marty hires Visser to kill the lovers, but the PI opts for the lower-risk strategy of collecting the fee and shooting Marty.
When Ray thinks Abby has shot her husband, he makes a botch of cleaning up the blood with his windbreaker, and can't even bury the corpse without imperilling himself, as the dying Marty points a gun out of his grave. An alleged theft, a doctored photograph in a safe, tensions between the lovers and suspicions that won't go away complicate an intricate but always clear pattern.
Less obviously comic than the Coens' subsequent films, this has a degree of beyond-black humour but is mostly a study of the way things always go wrong when people don't use their heads. "Who looks stupid now?" is an appropriate send-off line delivered by a murderer to a victim, as all the dumbness naturally leads to death. The last reel, with Abby attacked by a man she doesn't know for reasons she can't understand, is a great monster-and-the-girl face-off, as M. Emmet Walsh, in a career-best performance as the sweaty thug in a yellow leisure suit and huge straw cowboy hat, shoots holes through a wall to free his knife-pinned hand. It's a cruel picture, in which all four main characters get to be possible or actual murderers or murder victims and anyone is capable of doing the worst to anyone else. Later, in Fargo, the Brothers would add a humane, caring figure, promoting McDormand to detective, and set this murderous anthill in context; but here, at the beginning, they were much more ruthless.
A stirring debut and a harbinger for many of the strange and exciting things the Coens would go on to produce.