Blood, Sweat, and Tears


Appearing amid the same NYU-fueled mid-’80s indie boom that introduced Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Susan Seidelman, Joel and Ethan Coen’s boldly facetious and monstrously clever Blood Simple was immediately heralded as something new. This was an independent movie unburdened by political or cultural aspirations—a signal that indies might just want to be fun.

Blood Simple, which reopens this week in a remixed and slightly reedited version the Coen brothers are calling the “director’s cut,” gave further notice that the material that had once been the province of Hollywood B movies was now up for grabs. Taking its title from Dashiell Hammett and borrowing a situation from James M. Cain, the Coen’s 1984 debut was arguably the most influential noir since Chinatown (and until Reservoir Dogs). More specifically, Blood Simple gave an already highly aestheticized mode an ironic honky-tonk spin—or, rather, twang—while creating a precedent for indies like One False Move, Red Rock West, and Bound, as well as everything ever adapted from Jim Thompson.

Thus the movie became a cultural landmark after all. Nothing if not self-aware, the Coens are fully cognizant of this fact. Their rereleased Blood Simple may be the first so-called director’s cut to be shorter than the original-release version, but that’s only so they can include another joke. Actually, the new version is exactly the same length as the original because the filmmakers have added an introduction in which a distributor identified as Mortimer Young credits Blood Simple with “ushering in the era of independent cinema” and claims that now that the movie has been “digitally enhanced and tastefully restored” (with the “boring parts” excised and the unmistakable voice of Holly Hunter revealed on a telephone answering machine), it will be “forever young.”

This epithet has a double meaning. Blood Simple is not exactly in the StrikeCitizen KaneBreathless league, but if there ever was a movie-brat debut, it’s the Coens’ aggressively stylish mixture of showboat formalism and insouciant nose-thumbing. The movie’s Texas landscape is as deliberate as its low-budget economy is ostentatious. This motel-room, two-lane-blacktop love triangle gone sour is a movie of suspicious minds and cartoonish performances. Glowering cuckold Dan Hedaya can hold the screen and nominal heroine Frances McDormand is scarcely less focused here than she would be in Fargo, while M. Emmett Walsh’s good-old-boy affability is allowed to develop a suitably psychotic edge. Fall guy John Getz is the weak link—monotonously dry-mouthed and angst-ridden, he seems to be the one participant not in on the joke.

From the initial storyboard to the final sound design, Blood Simple is a supremely calculated intellectual exercise. The super-studied, neon-colored compositions are stippled by perfectly arranged shadows. In addition to its cast, Blood Simple boasts some distinguished credits—it was the first feature shot by cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld and the first scored by the prolific composer Carter Burwell. There are some classic attention-grabbers, and the movie builds to a stunning denouement—including the horrendous image of an impaled hand—that owes a bit to the Coens’ erstwhile mentor, Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi. (A dozen years later, Raimi would return the compliment with his succès d’estime A Simple Plan.)

Unextended to their characters, the Coens’ generosity is expressed mainly in the movie’s trove of sight gags, visual surprises, and little knickknacks to keep the frame busy. There is the sense that the Coens are examining life under a microscope or putting rats through mazes for their own amusement. Blood Simple features a hero so stupid that he manages to frame himself, even as he squanders whatever audience sympathy he might have earlier enjoyed. From first shot to last, the Coens seldom miss an opportunity to suggest that theirs is a movie made by evolutionarily advanced life-forms touring a primitive planet.

When I reviewed Blood Simple 15 years ago, I wrote that the film had “the heart of a Bloomingdale’s window and the soul of a résumé.” Though I still feel that way, the Coens eventually grew up—or, rather, brought themselves down. With Fargo and The Big Lebowski, the brothers subsumed their own egos into those of their stars—which is to say they finally managed to place their precocious virtuosity in the service of something approaching human warmth.

If Blood Simple is forever young, The Perfect Storm is instantly old. Wolfgang Petersen’s $140 million adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s best-selling account of a Gloucester fishing boat lost in the great nor’easter of ’91 opens with a squall of anticipatory clichés, busily stowing away human interest to be used once the shit hits the fan—or, rather, the big blue screen.

Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) is in a slump. His last catch was a record low, and so, although it’s dangerously late in the season, he ships back out for one last job, browbeaten crew in tow. The money is as lousy as the risks are great, and as a long scene in a rowdy fishermen’s bar makes clear, the romance of the sea is a less potent hook than working-class heroism and everyday aspiration. The filmmakers are particularly anxious to make sure we understand that Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg) and Christine Cotter (Diane Lane) are more than the town’s hottest couple. These are lovers whose transcendent passion would make that of Leo and Kate seem a fickle flirtation.

The barroom scene is full of portents, and the omens continue once Captain Billy takes the Andrea Gail back out. A stray shark grabs Bobby’s leg; another member of the crew gets yanked overboard with a hook through his hand; a “rogue wave” knocks the old tub on its keister. Meanwhile, even as the Andrea Gail heads east of the Grand Banks toward what’s colorfully known as the Flemish Cap (a place where, as one old salt informs the bar, there’s “lots of fish and lots of weather”), an inexplicable sailboat, Mistral, is turning somersaults in a hurricane off Bermuda and the TV weatherman tracking events in the North Atlantic is gleefully predicting “a disaster of epic proportions.”

Given that The Perfect Storm is a relatively concise 129 minutes, we don’t have to wait too long for the action—which, for my money, is marginally more fun than the lugubrious slaughter offered by its July 4th rival, The Patriot. The Andrea Gail heads right into the mad vortex of the colliding storm systems and then has to execute the “turnaround of all time.” Still, The Perfect Storm rains on its own parade. Clooney has less authority than attitude as the foolhardy captain, while the largely convincing effects are somewhat weakened by a puzzling slackness in the crosscutting between the two boats, various rescue vehicles, and their respective maelstroms.

Although The Perfect Storm is based on one of the most widely read nonfiction books of the past few years, Warners has requested that the press not reveal the film’s ending. Suffice to say that the big “You’ll Never Walk Alone” conclusion of Carousel, to cite an earlier exercise in the New England mawkish, is dry-eyed by comparison.

Winner of audience awards at festivals from Rotterdam to Thessaloniki, the hit of this year’s “New Directors/New Films” series, Zhang Yang’s Shower has proven to be a dependable crowd pleaser. The second feature by the onetime music-video director uses an old-fashioned Beijing bathhouse as the site for a family reconciliation between the old China and the new. Will a modern son abandon his lucrative business in the boom-boom south to take his traditional dad’s place alongside a mentally retarded brother in operating what amounts to an irreplaceable neighborhood mental health clinic?

Even if you can’t guess the answer (or anticipate the film’s moral), you may not be surprised to learn that this sentimental tribute to humble pleasures and the healing power of aqua therapy is amply stocked with lovable oddballs. (Perhaps that’s why the script required five writers.) Predictable as it is, Shower has a few quirks—as well as a flinty performance by veteran actor Zhu Xu as the old bathhouse proprietor—but it’s far too soggy a confection for my taste. Someone is surely considering a Hollywood remake that would allow Tom Hanks to play either (or both) of the brothers.