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Blueprint in Blood

Restored and recut, the Coen brothers' debut film provides clues on the gruesomeness to come

So who are these celebrated Coen brothers anyway, and what's their point? These days, it's pretty easy to switch over to critical autopilot, to gush about funny-looking friends shoved into wood chippers or hula hoops being designed, you know, for the kids. But where does the slender path of the Coen mythos lead, and what are these smart-ass, emotionally aloof filmmakers -- who have delivered Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo, among others -- trying to tell us?

We are afforded a new look back at their origins in the freshly restored and re-edited director's cut of their first feature, Blood Simple, and the experience is at once revelatory and disappointing. Shot for beans at a time when Boy George ruled the radio and Britney Spears wore diapers, the movie was everything pop culture wasn't: grim, somber, violent and detached. Glaring at middle America with eyes of pure love/hate, the Coens leaped off their board into a pool of lethal quirks and cuddly freakouts, and they haven't come up for air since. While Blood Simple is amateurish and structurally unsatisfying -- basically a glorified student film, oozing with style but achingly devoid of plausible motivations -- it most definitely reveals the seeds for themes the Coens would be sowing and harvesting to the present day.

Directed by brother Joel, produced by brother Ethan and written by both, Blood Simple is commonly defined as a noir film, but lacking the elegant shadow and mystique of the best classic noir, it exists today as a lean and mean indie, heralded by film preservationist Mortimer Young as the first breaking of a new wind… er… wave. Young shows up in a campy introduction at the top of this new edition to glorify the nuts and bolts of this bloody little enterprise, and then we're off into the dizzying heat of rural Texas, where a rainstorm, a pearl-handled .38 and sweaty passion in a cheap motel flash like deconstruction signs along the highway to hell.

Frances McDormand plays Abby, the hot-blooded but even-tempered young wife of Julian (Dan Hedaya), owner of a small-town saloon. Since Julian is a little on the insensitive side (he considers his wife "an expensive piece of ass"), he hasn't satisfied Abby's appetite of late, so she turns to Ray (John Getz), Julian's bartender, for creature comforts. Unfortunately Julian already knows about his wife's lover and has hired a sleazy private detective, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), to track the couple's exploits and photograph them through the windows they leave conveniently undraped during their sessions of ardor. "I know where you can go get those framed," Loren says, handing the pictures to Julian, and the tone is set. The garden of love pulses with poisonous vermin.

Part of the fun of Blood Simple, if you consider lovers and professional associates stalking and killing one another "fun," is having no idea what the sloe-eyed, thick-skulled characters are going to do next, nor to whom. It's not giving away too much to mention that Julian puts a contract out on his wife and her beau, only to find Loren, Ray and Abby in a rather unexpected configuration. Not the sort of people to talk out their problems and reach a higher level of understanding, these lusty Lone Stars play out their ancestors' frontier justice until most of their simple blood is spilled.

For McDormand, who would later marry Joel Coen, Blood Simple is a sketch pad upon which she doodled along the way to her breakthrough role in her husband's Fargo. The formula is the same: innocent heroine, surrounded by horror, keeps her cool, survives. The main difference (apart from the pregnant cop thing) is that here she's barely allowed to articulate herself, lacking even patronizing colloquialisms, playing much more feral. She's framed nicely by Hedaya's rage and Getz's lust. The standout performance, however, is from Walsh, whose purulent presence makes one want to go home and take two showers.

Although the sound for this new release was remixed under the auspices of Lucasfilm, don't expect to see a dancing female Greedo in this special edition. The stereo mix makes the Four Tops' "Same Old Song" ring out with added irony, and it's easier to hear the as-yet-undiscovered Holly Hunter on an answering machine, but otherwise little has been changed. No scenes have been added or lengthened; rather, as Young says, "the boring stuff has been cut out." Basically, while repaving their own lost highway, the Coens have tightened the curves.

And what of these brothers and their worldview? That will be explored further this year with the release of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Until then, we have evidence of equal-opportunity lambasting (crackers in Raising Arizona, socialites in Barton Fink) and an itch to understand this volatile nation's clandestine underground, chillingly dismissed by Loren in this gruesome tale: "The less you know about it, the better."

 
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