Why Blood Simple Towers Over No Country for Old Men
Characters in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen tend toward the archetypical, but rather than existing in their expected cinematic habitat, they're placed in ridiculous and macabre situations they simply are not prepared for. Though it is usually a delightful conceit, in No Country for Old Men (2005), it starts to become a belabored what-if scenario rather than a meaningful set of juxtapositions. No Country is a meditation on mortality and the eternal fight between humanity and inexplicable evil, set in rural Texas in the early 1980s, the same locale and era as the Coens' early neo-noir Blood Simple. Both feature postmodern aesthetics, pitch-perfect and witty dialogue, the celebration of regional variances in language and culture, and characters suffering from a surfeit of poor decisions. They are both without question exceptional films. Comparisons between them are unavoidable, though in terms of style and substance, Blood Simple is the more successful of the two.
In Blood Simple, a series of misunderstandings and double-crosses combine with darkly comic undertones in a situation that could be resolved, or at least improved, if the two main characters had just talked to each other. The characters are at times very silly, an endearing trait in a film that examines the tragedy of poor choices. The Coens have since ceased caring whether the audience sympathizes with characters or not, though that tack is quite effective in No Country for Old Men. While Blood Simple is about lack of communication, No Country shows us that, sometimes, communication makes no difference at all. A flattened affect throughout the film heightens the realization that emotional connections simply do not matter in the face of true evil.
Where this flatness of emotion goes wrong is in No Country's tendency to leave moments unfinished. The Coens at one time were more than willing to let audiences figure things out for themselves. Ambiguity in No Country, such as not showing a key death or ending a scene abruptly, is not meant to lead the audience to fill in points of the narrative themselves, but rather to allow the filmmakers to limit the emotions available to the audience. It's artifice designed specifically to deny catharsis, grief or resolution, all part of the Coens' rigorous cinematic control, but at great expense to realism.
Blood Simple, like most Coen brothers films, is clearly referential. One of the best such moments is the brazen borrowing of the famous ground-level swooping shot from Evil Dead (1981), a film which Joel Coen had worked on as assistant editor. The reference simultaneously invokes humor, the horror genre and a nod to burgeoning indie film movement of the film’s time. But where references like these in Blood Simple are natural and lighthearted, in No Country they are cold, calculated moments of manipulation. No Country, for example, copies the restaurant scene from Fargo; in these scenes, police officers in both films achieve necessary moments of clarity. It's heavy-handed and out of place in No Country, a lazy quotation of their own cultural milestone without thought for its relevance.
Early in the Coens' filmmaking careers, contempt was not a successful trait in a character. M. Emmet Walsh's P.I. in Blood Simple possesses an undisguised derision for everyone around him, but it is undermined by the resourcefulness and luck of those he's trying to con. For the Coens, the purpose of contempt has changed, and is now often the single biggest factor in resolving conflict: A character who shows contempt almost always wins out.
This is especially true in the case of the psychotic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country, a killer whose contemptuous attitude is proven right time and again. It is his most important and identifiable characteristic, one that allows his particular brand of evil to succeed. Meanwhile, small-town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is just as exasperated with the folks around him, though he keeps his contempt in check, leaving him powerless against the sociopath's self-imposed moral superiority.
The disdain for humanity in No Country, as in many of their other films, spills over into the filmmakers' contempt for the audience. The Coens seem loathe nowadays to even acknowledge there is such a thing a worthwhile everyday person. In Blood Simple, Ray (John Getz) is an everyman archetype, on the surface as bland as John Gavin in Psycho (1960), yet we're fascinated by his actions and sympathetic with him when things go wrong. In No Country, a series of everypersons, both men and women, are grotesques, stubborn and dull and frustrating. In an attempt to lead the audience into the mind of a killer, the Coens want us to be as unimpressed with these everyday people as Chigurh is; once you resist, Chigurh becomes caricature, just another dead-eyed psycho with a gimmick.
In the process of subverting themes in No Country for Old Men, the Coens often dispense with narrative altogether, preferring to use the film as a vehicle for delivering their own signature style. The film never quite gets around to challenging the validity of conventional cinematic narrative techniques, though it clearly means to do so. Blood Simple, in contrast, challenges common genre constructs precisely because it uses standard narrative techniques, and also allows for a humanity that encourages viewers to more closely engage with the moral and ethical dilemmas presented. Though both films are fine works in their own right, Blood Simple is a more exceptional one—even if it is more traditional.--Stacia Kissick Jones
Stacia Kissick Jones is a recovering literature major, freelance editor
and film critic. She is a regular contributor at Spectrum Culture Online
and ClassicFlix, and blogs at She Blogged By Night