This was the Coen Brothers first movie. Even in their first picture all of the Coen Brothers’ tendencies are on full display. I have a love/hate relationship with their movies and I’m sure it colors all of my views but that is probably true of a very large part of their audience. The Coen Brothers are undoubtedly extremely talented movie makers. Their dialog, cinematography and actor selection are quite remarkable. But there is such a blackness, such a nihilistic core in their work that you always walk away shaking your head.
The plot involves a married couple Julian and Abby Marty, played by Dan Hedaya and Frances McDormand. Julian owns a bar in Texas and when the movie begins his bartender Ray is driving Abby back from some trip. We quickly learn that Abby is not happily married to Julian and in fact Ray and Abby are about to stop at a motel for a sexual tryst. Unbeknownst to them Julian has hired a private investigator named Loren Visser (played by M. Emmet Walsh) who has followed them and is able to get pictures of Ray and Abby in bed together and provides these to Julian.
After some violent encounters between Julian and the lovers he hires Visser to kill them for $10,000. When Julian returns from an alibi fishing trip Visser meets him at his office and hands over some pictures showing Ray and Abbey in bed with blood spattered on their bodies. Julian secretly steals the photo and hides it in his safe while taking out the $10,000. When Julian hands over the money Visser takes out the small caliber gun that he somehow stole from Abby and shoots Julian in the chest and leaves after throwing the gun on the ground.
Now we find out that the death photos of Ray and Abby are fakes. Ray shows up at the bar and finds Julian shot in the back-room office. But when he sees Abby’s gun, he assumes she shot Julian. He decides to dispose of the body. He puts it in his car and drives out into the farmland surrounding his town. While stopping on a road to look at a plowed field as a possible burial location for Julian, he discovers that Julian is not quite dead yet. He has crawled out of the car and is inching down the road on all fours. Ryan agonizes over running Julian over with the car or banging him in the head with a shovel but because of an approaching truck he just drags him back in the car and heads onto the field.
He digs a grave and puts Julian in but as he begins to bury him Julian finds Abby’s gun that Ryan has stuck in the assumed dead man’s coat pocket. He then pulls the trigger a couple of times but none of the chambers he tries has a bullet in it so Ray takes the gun from him and buries Julian alive.
Ray returns home to Abby but he thinks she shot Julian and since he won’t say what has happened, she is completely in the dark about Julian and is scared by Ray’s strange behavior. They become suspicious of each other. Now Visser discovers that the doctored picture of Ray and Abby is missing and he decides he will have to kill Ray and Abby to ensure no one figures out his involvement. At this point all three protagonists are sneaking around in the same locales and the tension builds. Finally, Ray and Abby are holed up in his apartment and Visser comes to get them. Ray suspects that someone is out there and tells Abby to shut the light but she is a stubborn dope and because of this Ray takes a sniper shot to the back and falls down dead. Visser comes into the apartment and a game of cat and mouse develops between him and Abby that ends with a knife through his hand in a window in another room from the one he is standing in and him shooting holes in a wall to allow his other hand to enter the other room to get the knife out. It’s bizarre to say the least. Finally, Abby retrieves her gun again and shoots Visser through the door of the room he is in. She still thinks it’s Julian after her so she says, “I’m not afraid of you, Marty.” And Visser, lying on the floor, dying, says laughingly, “Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”
Good lord, what can you say? The Coens revel in ordinary people becoming submerged in criminality and violence. There are never any heroes. There are only varying shades of black and dark gray. Visser is a twisted man but Julian is hardly better and Ray and Abby are impulsive fools who get swept along in the flood of hatred and greed. To say it is over the top would be an understatement unless we are putting the statement in the context of other Coen Brothers movies. Remember this was their first film. Later on, this movie would be considered a light hearted romp.
But as a Coen Brothers movie it is a success. The plot bounces along from outrage to outrage and instead of reaching a satisfying conclusion the screen just goes black and the end-credits role. You have just been told a very disturbing crime story but it was effectively told. If you enjoy this kind of movie experience then you should watch this film. They do this very well. But please don’t expect a happily ever after ending. There ain’t no such thing in the Coen Brothers universe.