Friday, October 22, 2010
Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Blood Simple)
Though they've racked up an impressive amount of hit films and cult favorites, Joel and Ethan Coen have always been divisive figures in the critical community. Fans argue that the brothers have built up a thrillingly diverse oeuvre full of ambitious, impeccably crafted films that defy Hollywood convention while still meeting basic entertainment requirements. Detractors claim that the Coens' films are all style and no substance, and that they use their snarky postmodernism as an excuse for their empty, misantrhopic worldview.
Both sides seem to be making equally valid points, which is why I've always been a little on the fence about The Coen Brothers' work. I almost always find myself looking forward to their next project (True Grit is probably the movie I'm currently most excited for) and even when I'm disappointed by their films, I rarely feel like I've wasted my time watching them. I've always been impressed by their ability to create distinctive, rich worlds that look and sound like nothing else in theatres. They also usually manage to coax great performances out of their top-notch ensemble casts,whether they are working with established movie stars or unknown stage performers.
But for whatever reason the brothers' films tend not to stick with me, and I wonder if this is because there is little going on beneath their films' always attractive surfaces. My memory tells me that the Coens started their career with relatively straightforward genre pictures, but that their more recent films, made after they gained the favor of the mainstream media, tend to have pretentions to deep meaning that actually detract from the visceral pleasures of their filmmaking. For example, I found No Country for Old Men highly successful as a tense action-thriller, but thought its allusions to the two Iraq wars and its vague ramblings about the nature of evil were putting up a front of depth that the film couldn't support. And I don't think anyone can deny that the Coens often do seem to be looking down on their characters. As J. Hoberman said in his review of Blood Simple, the filmmakers "seldom miss an opportunity to suggest theirs is a movie made by evolutionarily advanced life-forms touring a primitive planet."
I can never decide if I'm over- or under- rating The Coen Brothers, which is why they make an ideal first subject for the "Undertsanding Auteurs" series. I've seen all of their feature films, with the exception of Intolerable Cruelty, but I've never watched them in chronological order or thought all that deeply about their common themes and stylistic traits, which may be why I have trouble coming to a clear verdict on their filmography. Fortunately, all of their work is readily available, and, though they work at a fairly fast pace, their oeuvre is small enough that watching all of their films won't be an endless chore. Ideally, I'd like to finish reviewing all of their films up through A Serious Man before True Grit hits theatres this Christmas, but it may be more realistic to set the film's DVD release as an endpoint for this project. Either way, I hope that I'll be able to come to a better understanding of what the filmmakers are trying to say and how they are trying to say it, so that I can better appreciate their work and come to some sort of conclusion about whether they are brilliant auteurs, smart-ass posuers, or both.
I'm glad that we had that four-paragraph introduction to fill up this article, because frankly I don't have much to say about The Coen Brothers' debut feature, Blood Simple (1984). Tavern owner Dan Hedeya suspects that his wife Frances McDormand is having an affair with barkeeper John Getz, and hires private eye M. Emmet Walsh to kill them both. Walsh hatches a scheme to double-cross all involved parties, killing Hedeya and taking his money, while essentially framing Getz and McDormand for the murder. The plot gets more complicated from there, but it never become much more than a variation on The Postman Always Rings Twice.
There are hints that The Coen Brothers are using a standard plot and stock characters to send up the cliches of the film noir genre, but the humor is too dry for Blood Simple to qualify as parody. They also don't do enough to set their film apart from other examples of the genre for it to work as a deconstruction of the genre. Sure, they are applying an American indie aesthetic to the classic film noir story, but long takes, minimal dialogue, and method acting had become staples of the genre after The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, Night Moves, and Cutter's Way (the last of these being the greatest unacknowledged inspiration for the Coens' later The Big Lebowski). Fans point out that Blood Simple is contrasting its everyman characters with the extreme situation that they're in, but film noirs dating back to Double Indemnity have always been about common people getting in over their heads, so the Coens really aren't doing anything new here.
And the characters don't seem enough like recognizable human beings to qualify as "common people" anyway. Hedeya is literally defined by his loathsomeness, so it is impossible to believe that he and McDormand are a couple, even an estranged one in the last days of their marriage. McDormand and Getz have no chemistry together, with the latter being by far the blandest lead in any Coen film. Walsh is at least allowed to have some personality, but, while his amusement at his own sleaziness is intermittently entertaining, he mostly comes off as a one-note hillbilly. The film is tightly plotted and smartly executed in many ways, but the total lack of investment in the characters severly undercuts the Hitchcockian tension of even its best scenes. As a result, Blood Simple is surprisingly dull (not an adjective I expect to be using very often in this series).
Perhaps the film is best appreciated as a stylish genre exercise. Joel Coen shows more flair as a visualist than as a storyteller, and he manages to at least make a generic story interesting to look at. The staging of a long, virtually dialogue-free sequence in which Getz attempts to dispose of Hedeya's not-quite-dead body is masterfully executed, with the atmospheric nighttime cinematography perfectly complimented by the eerie quiet of the soundtrack. While the film's level of flashiness seems out of proportion with its modest story, Coen still manages to make the most of splashy touches like a dog's-eye-view tracking shot, or the interruption of a door-side conversation by a newspaper loudly hitting the screen. And the thick atmosphere of sweaty, dirty small town Texas is well-constructed, even if the misanthropic tone that it contributes to can feel a little suffocating. But these are ultimately embellishments to a too-familiar story told with characters that we have no reason to care about. Blood Simple demonstrates that The Coen Brothers know how to make a movie, but now it's time for them to show that they can make a really good one.
UP NEXT Raising Arizona