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In their 1984 debut film Blood Simple, the Coen brothers lay out the themes that become most prominent throughout their body of work—a specific kind of American violence that often stems from miscommunication and jealousy. Their first film follows the emotional and violent fallout after a young woman, Abby, played by Frances McDormand in her debut film role, leaves her abusive husband Marty (Dan Hedaya) and takes up with his employee Ray (John Getz).
As a devout Coen Brothers fan, I fell in love with this movie quickly, because you can see their minds at work on the screen as they figure out not only what stories they wanted to tell but also how they develop the visual language to tell those stories. And as a Frances McDormand fan, I was mesmerized by her debut performance. In an interview on the Criterion Collection release of the film, McDormand, however, openly criticized her character for being too two dimensional and has critiqued her own performance as being too wooden. She does offer this caveat: “The one thing that I’ve always been able to offer [the Coen brothers] is a complexity that fills out an idea they have of something.” When she says this, she is remarking specifically on her proceeding film collaborations with the Coens, but I’d argue that McDormand’s performance as Abby is the most (perhaps unintentionally) nuanced performance in Blood Simple and acts as a blueprint for other level-headed characters in the Coen’s filmography.
Blood Simple opens with a monologue from Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), a Texan private investigator. His monologue sets the emotional tone for the film. “The world is full of complainers […] and go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor and watch him fly. […] All I know about is Texas, and down here, you’re on your own.”
The film cuts to Abby and Ray driving through a torrential downpour in the middle of the night. Their conversation echoes the phenomenon that Visser speaks of in the film’s opening monologue. Abby confides in Ray about the state of her marriage and gives her motivation for leaving her husband Marty—she felt that she would eventually be put into a situation where she would have to be willing to kill him to protect herself. While he is physically helping her get away, Ray does not offer her emotional support, countering her questions the dynamics of her relationship with “I’m not a marriage counsellor.” Though he does admit that he has always liked her. With this, they drive to a nearby motel to consummate their affair.
So it seems that Abby’s central conflict in the film is framed as being a conflict of the heart. She leaves her abusive husband and begins a relationship with her husband’s bartender, Ray. At first glance, it seems that the film is trying to corner her in the dramas of extramarital affairs and unhealthy marriages. But, a reevaluation of Abby’s plotline reveals that she is not necessarily interested in Ray as a romantic prospect. Rather, her relationship with Ray stems from convenience. Due to Ray’s affections for her, she is able to get him to help her leave and to help her get set up in a new life separate from Marty. She seems to be more interested in Ray as a temporary safe harbor during this liminal moment in her life. She is not portrayed as a callous or manipulative woman, just someone who accepts the help offered to her.
Abby’s relationship to Marty and Ray is the impetus for jealousy related violence. Her husband, upset that she has left him, hires Visser for his hitman services. Marty seems to be aware that Abby is more or less using Ray as a means to an end, and hints as much to Ray when he confronts Marty with his resignation: “What’s really going to be funny is when she gives you that innocent look and says, ‘What’re you talking about, Ray, I haven’t done anything funny.’ But the funniest thing to me right now is that you think she came back here for you.” Marty’s smarmy line implies that Abby is not as innocent as she looks. While he means that she is unfaithful, it could also be interpreted as the film asking us to consider Abby as more than the object of Marty and Ray’s desire.
The film hits the same cues that a film about a romantic rivalry would hit. Bitterness and jealousy motivate Marty and Ray to commit violent acts, like dragging Abby across the front lawn in a fit of no-one else-can-have-you jealousy or Ray burying Marty alive to keep Abby out of harm’s way. Ray and Marty are blood simple—a term used in Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. Being exposed to an inordinate amount of violence, they lose their ability to think rationally, unable to consider the long-term consequences of their actions, leading them to commit violent acts that set them up for their own downfall. Abby is surrounded by their violence, often the intended victim—a woman pursued.
After she has fired the last debilitating shot in the film, Abby cooly remarks, “I ain’t afraid of you, Marty.” Her poignant final lines in the film illuminate her central motivation throughout the movie, one that had gotten lost in the film’s attempt to align her as the object of Ray and Marty’s jealousy twinged romantic affections. Her entire goal in the film was to not only leave her husband, but to escape the bonds of fear that his presence instilled in her. And while the man she shoots isn’t her husband, but rather Visser, who has also become “blood simple,” her momentary belief that she killed him and had finally become free of him is powerful. It sets her apart from the men of this film, who kill out of jealousy, or of fear, or out of plain old blood lust. She ends life to finally begin her own.
McDormand’s self-proclaimed “wooden” performance serves the character of Abby well. It comes off as a kind of levelheadness that Marty and Ray and even Visser do not possess. She is able to maintain calm in the face of danger, with the implication being that her abusive marriage to Marty was the impetus that helped her develop these coping skills.
Abby becomes a kind of model for the few level-headed characters that exist in their other films. While their hallmark is characters who become easily frazzled and quickly unravel under the slightest amount of violence-related stress, there are characters that dot their filmography that exhibit an Abby-like tendency toward being even keeled. McDormand’s later performance as Marge in Fargo has more dimension than Abby, but you can see traces of Abby’s cleverness and survivor’s instinct. You can even see traces of Abby in Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie Ross in True Grit and Kelly MacDonald’s Carla Jean Moss in No Country for Old Men as both actresses play composed women who fall into the world of male-instigated violence and must create a path that leads to their own safety.
You can view Blood Simple on Criterion here.
by Mary Bolton