Posts Tagged ‘Coen Brothers’


If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.  – Ray.

 

Marty’s a guy born to get shot someday.

   

Also quite messy.

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Blood Simple (1984). Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Starring John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmett Walsh, Frances McDormand. 96 minutes. ***

A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop (also released as A Simple Noodle Story and Sānqiāng Pāi’àn Jīngqí,  2009). In Mandarin. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Shi Jianquan and Xue Jianchao, from the 1984 film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Sun Honglei, Ni Dahong, Xiaoshenyang, Yan Ni. **

Here’s the thing, this being the thing, you see. Murder can be an effective way to get what you want, or at least get even with the people you hate, but no matter how careful you are when you do it, no matter how clever your plan to get away with it, you will never quite succeed in wiping away all the blood, or gathering up all the evidence, or tailoring a crime scene that you can leave behind with an easy heart. You’re always gonna leave behind something incriminating, something that points to you even when you’d prefer it to point to someone else. This goes double even if you didn’t commit the murder yourself and simply believe you’re doing a good turn for the person who did.  Because maybe she didn’t. And even that assumes that the corpse you’re burying is really dead. Or, for that matter, unarmed…

These are the lessons taught by any number of noir thrillers, and which are particularly present in Blood Simple, the 1984 breakout film by Joel and Ethan Coen. No monster hit (it only grossed a little more than four million dollars), it did turn out to be the kind of film that establishes entire careers in a single stroke. Stylish, inventive, bloody, dark, kinetic, and often very funny, it marked the Coens as filmmakers to be watched; and established promise that they quickly followed up on with the one-two shot of the kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona and the gangster epic Miller’s Crossing. Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country For Old Men were all still coming.

The best of the many good things that can be said about this early film is that the maiden effort that achieved such instant notoriety still looks promising, though time it has magnified its flaws and it now resembles what it is: the maiden work of promising but uncertain beginners.

It’s essentially a five-character play, involving a murder driven by adultery, jealousy and greed. What’s remarkable about it is that no character in it ever knows exactly what’s going on; the deception that starts the cycle of bloodshed loops back around and ensnares the deceiver as well, so that nobody involved knows the whole picture at any point, and the ensuing crimes amount to a litany of misunderstandings. (It’s a format the Coens returned to, to much inferior effect, in Burn After Reading, which also starred Frances McDormand.) The Mandarin remake A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop adds an additional character by turning an innocent bystander bartender into a married couple, but otherwise retains this format. At any point, if the characters figure out what the audience knows, there’s no story.

Blood Simple (1984)

Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) is an oaf of a Texas bar owner, whose overbearing ways have driven away his much younger wife Abby (McDormand). You only have to spend a few minutes in Marty’s presence to know why Abby left. He thinks it’s because she’s a slut who sleeps around. Its quite possible that she has already been unfaithful to him; it’s also possible that when she immediately hops into bed with Marty’s bartender Ray (John Getz), it’s out of sheer relief at escaping the blunt instrument she married. There’s certainly nothing in her behavior to suggest that she’s the manipulative bitch Marty imagines her to be. Her tryst with Ray seems less about payback sex than a yearning for the genuine affection that Marty did not provide. Still, Marty does manage to plant the seed of doubt in Ray’s mind, telling him, watch out for her, she’ll betray you, too, and innocently bat her eyes while doing it.

Marty hires the loathsome private eye Visser (M. Emmett Walsh), one of the slimiest villains you’ve ever seen, to kill the two. Visser has no particular problem with killing, but doesn’t cotton to the idea of having Marty hold it over his head afterward, so he makes some fine adjustments in the plan, faking photographic evidence that he’s done the dirty deed, taking Marty’s money, and then killing Marty with Abby’s gun. No fuss, no muss…except that he leaves some evidence behind.

When Ray shows up to collect his back pay, he finds his old boss, who looks dead enough…and the gun that Visser left behind to implicate Abby. He jumps to the only sensible conclusion, that Abby has killed her husband…and immediately starts cleaning up the crime scene to protect her.

Unfortunately, he has to finish Marty off, to do it…and later, when he tells Abby what he’s done, she claims to have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

So what we’ve got here, by the midway point, is an epic three-way misunderstanding.

Ray is driven to the inescapable conclusion that Marty told him the truth about Abby, that she’s a conniving femme fatale who uses men without conscience. He believes that she tried to commit murder, that he risked his own ass to help her out, and that she now won’t carry her part of the weight.

Abby, who actually does care for Ray, honestly doesn’t understand what he’s talking about and is only frightened by his sudden coldness toward her and the hints of violent confrontations between him and Marty.

Visser, who thought he committed the perfect murder, is now bedeviled by a disappearing body and the loss of incriminating evidence. One important missing item is an engraved cigarette lighter easily identifiable as his, that he never quite succeeds in finding under the pile of fish Marty caught on his alibi vacation, that in one of the film’s more visceral gags are left unattended for days and days, and must grow more and more malodorous as the level of communal guilt rises. He thinks that Ray and Abby possess the evidence of the crime and intend on holding it over him.

The final character, that bartender, is only involved to the extent that he thinks Ray has burglarized the joint.

There are more complications than these, but that’s the essential shape of it. Again, nobody sees the whole picture. Nobody but the audience knows everything that’s going on. By the time the film reaches its memorably violent conclusion, Abby completely misunderstands why she’s being shot at. She thinks it’s just Marty being Marty.

It doesn’t add up to much, really, except as a self-contained better mousetrap. It falls apart on close examination, with a nest of logical flaws that include just how long it takes the chain-smoking Visser to realize that he’s lost his lighter. It’s not a long film, but it still drags in spots (even after the so-called “Director’s Cut” re-release, which unlike most of its kind is actually shorter)

There are some hints of future greatness in the dialogue, always a Coen strong point. In many films made by lesser talents, characters speak what amounts to a dry commentary track on the plot. In Coen Brothers films, they go off on tangents, they expose weird bits of business from their pasts, they reveal too much, they drop hints of lives existing just off the boundaries of the screen. It can be a pleasure watching Coen Brothers characters go off the verbal reservation. There’s a lot of this in Blood Simple, much of it Visser’s off-color humor, but for my money the best character moment is an extended bedtime conversation between Abby and Ray, over her husband Marty’s confession that, deep down, he might be  secretly “anal.” She imparts this information as if it’s fraught with desperate significance, and Ray responds with, essentially, an awed, well, what about that.  To paraphrase what Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride: that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means. As “anal” in this context would seem to mean an obsessive attention to detail that might include obsessive cleanliness, and there’s nothing in Marty’s behavior that renders this likely or even relevant, there’s really no telling what Marty believed he was confessing to (latent homosexuality?), how Abby interpreted it, or why it so mightily impresses Ray. They might be discussing three different things. If the moment establishes anything, it’s that Abby and Ray do seem to be on the same page, before the nested misunderstandings start multiplying and drive a wedge between them. 

But Blood Simple was most impressive with its set-pieces.

One involved the disposal of a body at the side of the road in the dead of night, that must be hurried before the oncoming car now visible by its headlights comes close enough for its driver to see what’s happening. That got re-thought and restaged in their much better film Fargo, which (all together now!) was yet another that also starred McDormand.

A Great Climax

The other is the final showdown between Abby and Visser, who is only visible to her as the hand groping for her through an open window. Imagining it Marty’s, she impales it against the sill with a knife. Unable to free his hand, Visser is reduced to firing shots through the wall, admitting shafts of bright light to stream into the darkened room where Abby hides, and weakening the wall he must physically hammer through in order to free his hand.

In the end, Abby defeats Visser without ever laying eyes on him. From the next room, she cries, “I’m not afraid of you, Marty.”

Visser, flat on his back beneath the sink, looking up at the plumbing, can only laugh. “Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”

Abby knows that’s not Ray. But, from her perspective, who the hell is it? She is not destined to know, at least not as long as we’re watching.

The final shot is Visser staring up at a single dangling drop of water that has collected under the pipes. It dangles maddeningly, prior to falling.

Visser seems more disturbed by that drop of water, a harbinger of death, than he is by the bullet that struck him.

At the moment it falls, we cut to black.

 

A Woman, A Gun, And A Noodle Shop (2009)

Blood Simple was a breakout effort by new filmmakers with a terrific future still ahead of them. Its 2009 remake was the work of Zhang Yimou, an important, established director whose international hits included Raise The Red Lantern and the beautiful, fanciful martial arts films Hero and House Of Flying Daggers.

Unfortunately, the results are not what they should be.

Moving the action to medieval China required some substantial changes, among them the explanation for the presence of the firearm that causes so many problems. In modern-day Texas, it is not surprising that a churlish bar owner will come to a bad end from a handgun he originally bought his wife to carry in her handbag; that can be established in a line of dialogue, and immediately accepted as given. In A Woman, A Gun, And A Noodle Shop, the presence of the weapon requires more backstory. It’s an exotic device from a distant land, that is brought to China by a Turkish trader who also tries to sell the titular lady an actual cannon. She buys the handgun as much for its novelty value as for protection from her wealthy and much older husband.

Unlike the apparently innocent Abby of Blood Simple, the wife here is a much harsher piece of work. Sure, she’s abused by her remote husband for not producing an heir, but she’s also the nasty, conniving sort that Marty merely imagines Abby to be. She carries out her affair with a co-worker in open defiance of her marriage, and local laws that declare adultery a serious crime.

The bar of the original is changed to a “noodle shop,” essentially a roadhouse restaurant in the middle of nowhere, that but for one squadron of local police officers never seems to get any customers. There is still an impressive and extended narrative set-piece, unfortunately a highlight of the film, where the various noodle shop workers spin and juggle the dough prior to cutting the noodles into strips. If you like watching pizza shop guys juggle dough, this is the same thrill, only more so. It is admittedly dazzling, in effect a dance number. It still should not be a highlight of the movie.

Another highlight would be the surrounding desert, an alien and forbidding landscape of rolling rock formations, striated by bands of scarlet color. Every shot of this backdrop is absolutely gorgeous. The characters keep finding excuses – not just corpse disposal, but also romantic assignations – to keep going out there. There is no societal context. Oddly for a filmmaker whose martial arts films had such sweep and depth and scale, there is no sense of the surrounding world being inhabited by anybody but this small handful of people.

This movie’s assassin is a corrupt local policeman. He is no colorful Visser, but a blank-eyed, stone-faced killer of little affect, who is for vast stretches of the film perversely funny for the matter-of-fact emptiness with which he keeps pursuing his various missions of evidence disposal. It’s a one-note characterization that gets old. The bystander bartender character of the original is here split into two characters, a comical married couple whose own reasons for breaking into their employer’s safe complicate matters still further; the man has a truly unfortunate pair of buck teeth that are distracting as hell until they lead to a sound-effects gag original to this film. It’s one fraction of a second of pure genius. But then it ends. 

The language barrier forces us to abdicate any discussion over whether any of the dialogue is as finely etched as that in the Coen film. Wordplay is, alas, the first thing to go when a film must be watched in translation, and neither one of us speaks Mandarin. We report that the film was praised by those in the know, for clever dialect humor involving the comic-relief married couple. It might actually be scintillating. We’ll accept that it likely is, and move on. 

The major set-pieces are duplicated, all of them to lesser effect. And none are missed by as wide a margin as the finale.

It made sense in Blood Simple for Visser to shoot at Ray and Abby through glass windows where they can be clearly seen from a rooftop across the street.

It makes less sense for the policeman of this film to fire a fusillade of arrows into a wooden house where the windows are mostly shaded and where there is no obvious line of sight.

It was stunning in Blood Simple when Abby grabbed Visser’s hand through the window and used a knife previously unseen by us to crucify him through the palm.

It was less effective in this film when the scene is retold from the woman’s point of view and we’re privy to both her indecision and the critical moment when she spots something to stab him with.

It was suspenseful as hell in Blood Simple when Visser was  hammering on the wall to try to break through it and free his hand, while Abby returned through the hallway to retrieve her handgun.

It was much less so in this film when the suspense of that scene is truncated and the besieged woman got to her weapon without difficulty.

The final exchange between unseen murderer and intended victim plays out almost word-for-word here as it does it Blood Simple – except in Mandarin, of course but to lesser emotional payoff. Blood Simple’s Abby says it with sad defiance; this woman screams it in rage. Abby’s approach is better, as it underlines our awareness that we’ve just seen this woman live through a genuinely tragic series of events that she might never fully understand. This movie’s screaming harpy was always a nasty piece of work. She’ll get over it.

And we get that dangling droplet of water, too…though it’s not so much a brilliant sight gag, here, as a shout-out to a much better previous film. Only those who saw Blood Simple first, and know it well, will even appreciate its significance. 

The Droplet Falls

Blood Simple, an effective little thriller not quite good enough to add up to more than the sum of its parts, but nevertheless the first substantial achievement in the career of two great filmmakers. A Woman, A Gun, And A Noodle Shop, a much inferior follow-up by  a filmmaker who’s done much better, and will again.

And now, the wife peers through the bullet hole in the bathroom door, to deliver her own verdict…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Blood Simple (1984). Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Starring John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmett Walsh, Frances McDormand. 96 minutes. **

A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop (also released as A Simple Noodle Story and Sānqiāng Pāi’àn Jīngqí,  2009). In Mandarin. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Shi Jianquan and Xue Jianchao, from the 1984 film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Sun Honglei, Ni Dahong, Xiaoshenyang, Yan Ni. **

 

This is one of those times when I really feel as if I have nothing special to say. 

I neither liked nor terribly disliked either film.  The Chinese remake I found to be beautifully filmed, but peopled by characatures, while the Coen bros had characters, but little substance.

Both films left me with a why did I bother empty feeling.

If I had to recommend one over the other could I?  Maybe.  I can see the spark that would grow in the brothers filmmaking lives, but at this point it is an embryonic ember in desperate need of screenwriting oxygen.  And  the Chinese film is more of a tribute to the original story, rather than a rethinking.

All in all, watch both films for yourselves and see which side the bloody dagger strikes you.