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Return to Blood Simple

Coen brothers' debut presages their passion for American regionalism

Opens Aug. 4

You'd think that films, unlike friends and family, would have the common courtesy to remain constant. You know how it is with people — every time you turn your back, they stab you in it by up and changing on you. There you are, comfortable with the static portraits preserved in your mind of your nephew as a beaming toddler or your best friend from high school jovially blasting beer bongs in the garage. Next thing you know, you happen to meet the recollected individual at, say, a convenience store and the stock company player in your mind is suddenly, jarringly seven feet tall and robbing the place.

But films are supposed to be fixed. Thanks to the miracle of home video, we can visit Casablanca as many times as we wish and never have to worry about encountering some ghastly upheaval like Rick siding with the Nazis or Ilse joining Victor and Louis for a hot, bi three-way. But if you haven't seen Blood Simple lately, brace yourself for a few surprises.

It's not that the re-released version is so radically different from earlier incarnations. The "director's cut," which debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival (where Blood Simple originally debuted in '85), does have a scrumptiously enhanced sound mix, a new opening credit sequence and a few snippets of previously excised footage, none of which do anything to untangle this knotty tale of adultery, murder and betrayal deep in the heart of Texas. Actually, if you remember those flourishes that foreshadow the later greatness of the pair, you might not be prepared for just how deeply disorganized and generally unmotivated Blood Simple was (and still is).

Viewed today, in the context of the Dynamic Duo's remarkable run of groundbreaking movies, Blood Simple is a strikingly un-Coen-ish film. There are some familiar elements; the story is centered, like so many of the brothers' works, around a more or less disastrously unsuccessful crime, and Joel's spouse, Frances McDormand, stars as the straying wife of a gruff, dyspeptic nightclub owner (Dan Hedaya), who takes out a contract on her and her taciturn lover.

Unlike the elegant, fluid films that follow it, Blood Simple is somehow forced. On an art-house kick that makes Barton Fink look like Booty Call, the Coens fill their maiden effort with long tracts of ambiguous silence and negative space, rather than the dazzling dialogue that illuminates their later works. There are flashes of brilliance, of course — M. Emmet Walsh reveling in the sheer smarminess of it all as the double-dealing private dick who agrees to kill; luxuriously detailed interiors; sharp, sweet nothings of lines that somehow stand out like non-sequitur profundities — but it's just not easy to find this film's place in the Coen canon.

For most fans, the Coen saga begins with Raising Arizona in 1987, and for good reason. Not only is Arizona a face-crampingly funny film, and one which made (unlike Blood Simple) more than a little loot at the box office, it also provides the foundation for what amounts to a separate cinematic universe, a distinctively quirky, uniquely Coen cosmos in which all the subsequent films take place. The mob-ridden Chicago of Miller's Crossing (1990) may be decades away from the snowbound highways of Fargo (1996), but they are both located on the same continuum.

While common threads run stealthily through all the post-Arizona works (Nick Cage's beleaguered ex-con in Arizona works for the Hudsucker Corp., which simpleton savant Tim Robbins rises to command in Proxy seven years later, to cite but one example), Blood Simple exists, to a large extent, in its own bitter, stylish void.

For all its anachronisms in the boys' freshman film, however, there is one striking tie that binds Blood Simple to the larger body of work, and it is one that sheds some light on a fascinating facet found in all the Coen films. While they have updated a variety of genres over the years, every feature made by these Minnesota-born brothers digs deep into the culture and texture of a particular place and time in America. Seeing Texas through the Coens' lurid lens, a kind of pattern stands out in sharp relief: It might not be part of the Arizona continuity of formal gestures and sneaky in-jokes, but the barren flats of Blood Simple's Texas definitely belong on the same map as The Big Lubowski's slackers-vs.-swindler's L.A. and the dizzying avarice of Hudsucker's Eisenhower New York. The Coens are, from beginning to end, regionalists — cinematic wayfarers intoxicated with the diversity of colors and accents and ways of life that make up the American experience. Blood Simple may be a trifle stiff in comparison to the team's more mature movies, but it is, like them, a keenly observed, intensely human and, at times, stunningly accurate sketch of a particular intersection of personality and place.

The new cut of this old favorite may not be as good as the Coens can be, and it may not be the movie you remember, but for all its little faults and anachronistic pretensions, it is still a mesmerizing, nostalgically nihilistic, neon-and-nightmare portrait of life on new and old frontiers, social, personal and otherwise. It is still hauntingly Texas.

And in Texas, you're still on your own.