THE HERO'S JOURNEY: In the opening montage of Blood Simple, a voice-over from reptilian slimeball Loren Visser tells us "What I know about is Texas -- and down here, you're on your own." That line sums up Blood Simple and, in a certain way, the whole of the Coen Bros' work. When you watch a Coen Bros' movie, oftentimes you're on your own -- they're not going to tell you who to root for, they're not going to be your guide, they're not going to hold your hand or flatter your prejudices or spoon-feed you plot.
The idea that the Coens would choose for their first feature to create a story without a protagonist is remarkable in and of itself. That Blood Simple is riveting cinema regardless is a testament to the sheer raw talent these guys had, lo these 23 years ago. Just think! They'd never made a movie before, and yet Blood Simple positively overflows with precise, concise filmmaking, stark, innovative scene construction and bravura visual dynamism.
Marty, the angry Greek bar owner, is the protagonist in the classical sense of the word -- he starts the events of the story into motion by hiring Visser to kill his wife and lover. But then Marty dies about half-way through the movie. Ray, the male half of the illicit-lover couple, makes another likely protagonist, but he is off-screen for most of the first half of the movie, says little while he is on screen, and then dies before the climactic shoot-out. Visser, by far the most memorable character, is in perhaps a third of the movie and is, if anything, the antagonist. Abby, Marty's wife, spends most of the movie not having the slightest idea what, if anything, is going on.
(In fact, due to the jigsaw-nature of the narrative, no one character ever knows completely what is going on. Ray knows the most, for a brief period of time, before getting shot to death.)
(He also has the most "heroic" sequence of the movie, the sequence where he tries to get rid of what he thinks is Marty's dead body. The Coen's idea of heroism is showing a guy who doesn't have the slightest idea how to mop up a simple spill [even though he works in a bar], and who considers running Marty over in the road and beating him to death with a shovel before cowardly deciding to bury him alive and screaming.)
In most movies in this genre, the young lovers would be the protagonists. But the Coens give us a couple of real losers at the center of their story. Ray is fatally taciturn, suspicious, hard-headed, weaselly and staggeringly dumb, whereas Abby is neurotic, chatty, spoiled and equally staggeringly dumb. The Coens refuse to give them any positive qualities. They sit resolutely outside their characters, putting them through their paces and silently bearing witness to their destinies with a coldness rivaled only by Kubrick.
THE LITTLE GUY: The Coens' movies all have a subtext of social mobility. Here, "the rich guy" (let's call him "Capital") is Marty, the seething, greasy Greek bar owner. Marty rules his world with an iron fist, but is also short-sighted and too angry for his own good. He thinks his money and station will allow him to get away with murder.
He's married to Abby, although one cannot think of a good reason why. Her youth suggests she was a trophy wife, but she's rather plain, has no noticeable education or talents. It's safe to assume she married young for the sake of security and has come to regret her decision, and is now looking for someone else to take care of her, even if that means a step down the social ladder. Abby, of course, finishes her arc believing she has killed Marty -- triumphing over Capital. The final irony of the movie is that she hasn't killed him at all -- she's only killed Visser, a character who is more or less her equal, a lower-class man trying to get along by taking money from Marty.
Ray, Abby's lover, works for Marty, and is looking to "rob" him of one of his assets. This may or may not raise his social standing, but it at least gives him some measure of revenge on Capital. It's also worth noting that when Ray comes to Marty's bar, it's not for revenge but for his back pay -- what Marty "owes" him. Ray may or may not feel that his theft of Abby is adequate compensation (although it would explain the look on his face when he thinks she's been playing him for a sap on her way somewhere else) but he certainly separates his love for her from Marty's debt to him. (In fact, he takes pains not to take Abby for granted, even after they've slept together -- much to his chagrin.)
Visser I don't think seeks to raise his station -- he's happy being a snake -- he just wants "a little bit of money" (as Marge puts it in Fargo). (The idea that Visser would say he's willing to murder two people for $10,000, even in 1984 dollars, is startling -- was life that bad in Texas?) Visser says in the opening narration that he doesn't care if you're "Man of the Year," you're all alone in this society. Ironically, his prized personalized lighter is engraved "ELKS MAN OF THE YEAR" on the side. (Later on, Jeffrey Lebowski, another paragon of wealthy hypocrisy and corruption, would have a Time "Man of the Year" mirror in his trophy room -- an odd choice, given that it is a novelty gift and not a true award.) All this being said, Visser hates Marty more than anyone in the movie. He smiles and laughs and wheezes as beetles and flies crawl on his face in Marty's presence, but once he has his money he shoots Marty cold dead and then snarls "Who looks stupid now?" implying that Marty's pre-eminence as society kingpin is something Visser has had quite enough of in this lifetime, thank you very much.
Meurice, the African-American bartender, is the only character who seems happy where he is -- he knows Marty is an asshole, but he respects him as a businessman and even defends him to Ray. He even takes time to explain to a customer what his game-plan is -- as a man who doesn't fit in his surroundings, he's biding his time, taking advantage of whatever benefits his incongruity provides to make a life for himself. (Later on, we see evidence that he's renovating his house -- either he's preparing to flip it for a profit or else he's planning on settling down.)
MUSIC: The primary musical conflict in Blood Simple is between country and soul (by which I refer to popular musical genres, although that's certainly an interesting thematic juxtaposition). Meurice interrupts Patsy Cline to play the Four Tops on the bar jukebox -- "The Same Old Song" is used three times in the movie, suggesting that the fatal mistakes the characters make are all part of an unstoppable continuum. The Four Tops also are a symbol of Meurice's ability to exist within a corrupt system -- Marty may be an asshole, but he provides swell digs for Meurice to entertain lady friends.
Mexican songs drift in from the apartment below Abby's, suggesting "the world outside," the people blithely going on about their lives, unaware of the turmoil and strife going on in their building. (The notion of the main characters having some sort of secret, higher knowledge while the rest of the world stumbles on will be brought up again in The Man Who Wasn't There.)
THE MELTING POT: Marty, the controlling force, is Greek-American. Visser, the scumbag, is a drawling native white-trash Texan (in a VW bug, just to throw us off the scent). Ray and Abby, it seems, are also white southerners, although Ray has spent time in the army, so it is presumed he's spent time outside of Texas (although not necessarily). Meurice, the only well-adjusted character in the movie, is African-American and doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. Abby rents her new apartment from Mexicans, underscoring her shift to a new life "outside" the system.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: As far as we can tell, there are no law-enforcement agencies in Texas. Visser and Ray both worry about "getting caught" for the murder of Marty, but we never see a single police car or uniform. Law is abstracted to the point of invisibility.
IS JUDGMENT AT HAND? In keeping with the "you're on your own" philosophy of the movie, there is little reference to God in Blood Simple. However, it's worth noting that, as Ray drives down the highway with Marty in his back seat, he listens to a radio commentator talk about "The Jupiter Effect," the end-of-the-world scenario popular in the 80s, a kind of precursor to the Y2K bug. The free-floating world-ending anxiety of the Reagan era comes into sharper focus in Raising Arizona.
MAGIC: In all Coen movies (with the exception of Fargo), the plot cannot get by on literalism alone -- magic must be introduced at some point. Here, they create a bunch of fake suspense by having Abby dream about Marty showing up in her new apartment. Her dreaming of Marty is one thing, but she dreams of details she shouldn't really know anything about.
ECHOES: In addition to the already mentioned, Visser's blue VW bug later turns up driven by Jon Polito in The Big Lebowski.
John Getz as Ray bears a strong resemblance to Billy Bob Thornton's Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn't There, complete with laconic remoteness and dangling cigarette. (In Man, Ed is, of course, married to Frances McDormand, playing another version of Abby, a not-terribly-bright woman who feels stuck in a loveless marriage. In Man, of course, she's on her way out of the marriage in order to raise her station, not lower it.)
Visser tells Marty a bawdy story about an acquaintance who broke both of his hands. This unfortunate man's name is Creighton, a name that would later turn up as a major character in The Man Who Wasn't There. There is no evidence to suggest they are the same person.
Like Tom Regan in Miller's Crossing, Visser takes great pride in his hat, and seemingly cannot do his job without it. Even after getting stabbed through the hand, he takes time to pick up his hat and put it on before he goes to take care of Abby.
The 20-minute set-piece at the center of Blood Simple will be played out in shorter form in Fargo -- the victim in the back seat of the car, the desolate roadside, the suspense beat of the killer almost being caught by an oncoming vehicle.
(Marty's blood becomes an important symbol in Blood Simple -- just as Marty tries to get rid of his problems only to have them get much larger as a result of his actions, Ray tries to get rid of Marty's blood but the stain only gets bigger -- it's like the freakin' bathtub ring in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Ray tries to mop up the blood off the office floor but only makes the stain bigger. Marty bleeds so much into Ray's back seat that the blood is still seeping upwards a day later. He vomits blood onto Ray's shoulder, and, in Abby's dream, he vomits blood onto her floor. Marty, we would say, won't stop bleeding.)