Blood Simple (1984) – A Movie Review

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.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? – A Country Music Review

Back in 2000 I went to see the Coen Brothers movie of the same name and even though George Clooney was just as much of a progressive jerk back then as now I enjoyed the movie immensely.  So, I bought the movie soundtrack sometime in early 2001 and listened to it from time to time.  Then 9/11 happened and I found myself listening to that album over and over.  One song especially, “Angel Band,” seemed soothing and fit my mood.  About the same time, I was driving home from work, listening to the local classic rock station and it struck me that I had heard the same six songs on the way home for the last six months and just couldn’t stand to hear them again.  So, I tried a few of the other rock stations and realized they were playing exactly the same songs.  In desperation I clicked around to see what else was playing.  Eventually I stumbled on a country music station and by some weird coincidence they were playing Angel Band!  I took it as a divine intervention and from then on, I switched to country music.

So that may explain why I have an exaggerated regard for “O Brother Where Art Though.”  But undoubtedly it is a very good album.  Even the songs that are not strictly country fit the mood of the collection.  My favorite songs in the collection are:

  • Down to the River to Pray (Alison Krauss)
  • I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow (Dick Burnett)
  • Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby (Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch)
  • Indian War Whoop (John Hartford)
  • Angel Band (The Stanley Brothers)

I’ll review the movie separately but I don’t think it’s necessary to watch the movie to enjoy the music but it does add an extra dimension to the experience which I recommend.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – A Movie Review

The Coen Brothers are filmmakers who have a long established track record but are so idiosyncratic that it is unwise to assume anything about their new works without confirmation.  They are extremely inventive and original and also have an extremely dark sense of humor.  I was a big fan of their work until I saw “No Country for Old Men.”  Although I consider that movie a very good film the nihilistic story line coinciding with the state of affairs in the world in 2007 created a visceral reaction in me such that I avoided all of their subsequent films.  This continued until they produced True Grit.  At that point, because of the subject matter, curiosity got the better of me and I watched it. Well it was a very enjoyable film and for that reason I decided to give this other western film from the Coen Brothers a chance.

Last night I watched the Ballad of Buster Scruggs and true to form it was completely unpredictable.  Or rather, in a predictably Coen Brothers manner it was extremely inventive and original and also had an extremely dark sense of humor.  The movie is made of a series of six vignettes that share an Old West theme.

  • “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
  • “Near Algodones”
  • “Meal Ticket”
  • “All Gold Canyon”
  • “The Gal Who Got Rattled”
  • “The Mortal Remains”

Because they’re all short stories I won’t spoil any of them by narrating them.  None of the stories are related and the only recurring theme is the cruel irony that fate weaves into every story.  Mixed in with this bleak picture are varying portions of humor, absurdity, cruelty, sadness, warmth and even affection.  But the overarching impression is bitter humor.  Several of the character sketches are intricate and appealing.  Others are caricatures. But each of them is appropriate to the story in which it occurs.  In one story having to do with a gold prospector, “All Gold Canyon,” the cinematography is extremely fine and the landscapes striking.  In one story, “Meal Ticket,” there are grotesque aspects that are a bit off-putting so those who don’t care for such things should be forewarned.

Maybe because 2019 isn’t as depressing as 2007 I don’t find myself repelled by this movie as I was with their earlier one. Maybe it’s the historical separation that allows me emotional immunity from the dark content.  I will recommend this movie for those who have a strong bent for darker content.  Don’t look for any affirmation of life in this film. A sardonic leer is what it seems to offer in my estimation.

31DEC2018 – Movie Quote – True Grit – Mr. LeBoeuf Spills the Banks of English

In the Coen Brothers’ version of “True Grit,” there are several conversations between Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf where Rooster made it clear he considered LeBeouf a blowhard.  After the incident where LeBoeuf is dragged feet first behind a horse and shot through his shoulder he is recovering in the cabin they have occupied.

 

(Inside the Cabin)

 

As Mattie enters.  We see LeBoeuf musing before the fire as he cleans his Sharp’s carbine —an awkward operation given the injury to his shoulder, now bandaged. All we see of Rooster, seated further from the fire, is a pair of boots, and legs stretching into darkness. Mattie goes to the pot of food on the fire.

 

LEBOEUF

“Azh I understand it, Chaney——or Chelmzhford, azh he called himshelf in Texas——shot the shenator’zh dog.  When the shenator remonshtrated Chelmzhford shot him azh well.  You could argue that the shooting of the dog wazh merely an inshtansh of malum prohibitum, but the shooting of a shenator izh indubitably an inshtansh of malum in shay.”

 

Rooster is a voice in the darkness:

 

ROOSTER

“Malla-men what?”

 

MATTIE

“Malum in se.  The distinction is between an act that is wrong in itself, and an act that is wrong only according to our laws and mores.  It is Latin.”

 

We hear the pthoonk of a bottle yielding its cork, followed by the pthwa of the cork’s being spit out.

 

ROOSTER

“I am struck that LeBoeuf is shot, trampled, and nearly severs his tongue and not only does not cease to talk but spills the banks of English.”

 

We hear liquid slosh as the bottle is tipped back.

 

True Grit: The Duke, The Dude and the Dutiful Daughter; Part I

Miller’s Crossing – A Movie Review

The Coen Brothers make a lot of interesting movies.  Some I like more than others.  Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorites.  It’s a gangster story in an unidentified southern city during the 1930s.  Albert Finney is Leo O’Bannon, an Irish gangster who runs the city.  Gabriel Byrne is Tom Reagan, Leo’s right-hand man and best friend.  Verna is Leo’s girl.  But she’s also sleeping with Tom.  Verna’s brother, Bernie (played by John Turturro) and  Mink Larouie (played by Steve Buscemi) are small-time bookies who have crossed another gangster, Johnny Caspar.  Caspar wants Bernie dead and Leo won’t let it happen because of Verna.  Tom knows that Bernie and Verna spell disaster for Leo and advises him to give up Bernie.  So, this is the complicated basis of the story.

But that’s not the reason to watch the movie.  It’s a comic book version of a 30s gangster movie.  A gangster can be bounced down three flights of marble stairs and walk away from it all in one piece. The cops and the city administration will switch back and forth between mob allegiances on an hour’s notice and bring to bear against their former allies all the force of military grade weaponry.

The movie has a fine soundtrack that includes popular music of the era, Irish folk music and even a little Italian opera.  My favorite scene is an attempted mob rubout at Leo’s house.  It’s a bullet riddled ballet to the accompaniment of Danny Boy.  It’s in this scene that Albert Finney proves that a Thompson machine gun will never run out of ammunition.  It’s a thing of nihilistic beauty.

Finney, Turturro and Buscemi are all extremely entertaining but Gabriel Byrne is the center of the movie.  His character Tom is a hardened bitter man who nevertheless lives by a code that requires loyalty to a friend.  In fact, his loyalty to Leo is the only admirable behavior displayed in the whole movie.  And even this is wholly doomed by their relationships with Verna.  Basically, everyone is corrupt.  The good guys are mobsters.  The bad guys are mobsters.  There’s even a scene where a little kid sees a dead mobster on the street and steals his toupee.

And because this is a Coen Brothers movie it is suffused with black humor.  Every mob rubout and brutal beating is chock full of jokes and wisecracks.  The mobsters and cops in the movie are prone to witticisms and philosophical musings that probably rarely occur in real mobsters and cops.  The best example is when Johnny Gaspar explains to Leo that Bernie’s selling of Johnny’s fixed fight information demonstrates Bernie’s lack of moral character.

Miller’s Crossing is a typical Coen Brothers movie.  All the characters are morally compromised and happy endings are extremely scarce and never unmitigated.  If you have enjoyed any of their other movies then I highly recommend Miller’s Crossing.  Otherwise, read my description and decide for yourself if this type of film is for you.