The Dude AbidesThe Gospel According to the Coen Brothers
ZondervanCopyright © 2009 Cathleen Falsani
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-310-29246-3
Foreword by Rabbi Allen Secher...........................7The Coen Brothers: A Short Biography.....................11The Coen Brothers: Filmography...........................13Introduction: Elucidating the Lucida.....................151 Blood Simple...........................................212 Raising Arizona........................................333 Miller's Crossing......................................474 Barton Fink............................................615 The Hudsucker Proxy....................................796 Fargo..................................................937 The Big Lebowski.......................................1078 O Brother, Where Art Thou?.............................1239 The Man Who Wasn't There...............................13710 Intolerable Cruelty...................................14911 The Ladykillers.......................................15912 No Country for Old Men................................17313 Burn After Reading....................................18714 A Serious Man.........................................203Conclusion: The Gospel...................................217The 14 Coenmandments.....................................218Acknowledgments..........................................220Group Study Questions....................................221Notes....................................................223
Chapter One BLOOD SIMPLE
"Down here, you're on your own."
In an unnamed Texas town, Abby is cheating on her bar-owning husband, Marty. Abby's lover is Ray, one of Marty's bartenders. Marty hires Visser, a sleazy detective, to kill Abby and Ray, but Visser has his own nefarious plans. The plot of this neo-noir crime thriller uncoils in double- and triple-crosses where almost nothing is what it seems, ending in a chillingly violent showdown between Abby, Visser, and the ghosts spawned by her guilty conscience.
Bleak images of rural Texas slowly flip past as day turns to night. A scrap of a blown-out tire lies on a span of an asphalt highway punctuated by yellow demarcation lines. Desiccated brown fields foreground the tall buildings of a nondescript city on the horizon. The black silhouettes of huge oil derricks pierce the hard Texas earth like birds hunting grubs. Finally, the twin headlights of a lone vehicle break the gloom of a dark, rainy stretch of road.
A narrator's voice, dripping with smarmy faux-southern charm, sets the tone:
Narrator: "The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don't care if you're the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year, something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain to your neighbor, ask for help-and watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else-that's the theory anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here, you're on your own."
Two people, barely visible in silhouette from the vantage point of the backseat, ride in a car in silence through the rain-soaked night. The driver of the car, Ray (John Getz), is chauffeuring Abby (Frances McDormand), the gamine wife of Julian "Marty" Marty (Dan Hedeya), the owner of the roadhouse where he tends bar. Abby is heading for Houston, on the run from her husband. Ray is her getaway man in more ways than one. "He gave me a little pearl-handled .38 for our first anniversary," Abby tells the laconic bartender. "Figure I better leave before I used it on him."
When Ray expresses a modicum of interest in her-"I always liked you," he says-she yells at him to stop the car. Ray figures this is because she recognizes the car that's following them. Instead it's because she's spotted the sign for a motel. "What do you wanna do?" Ray asks. "What do you want to do?" she answers. So they make love fitfully in the hollow dankness of a cheap motel room, and the next morning, the phone rings. Abby is still asleep, wrapped in a sheet, so Ray answers. It's Marty. He knows.
Marty is a swarthy, skeevy, ne'er-do-well businessman straight out of central casting. He's been having Abby tailed by a private investigator, figuring she was having an affair but not sure with whom. The private eye is a comical-looking creature, a fat man with a dingy cowboy hat and a leisure suit the shade of lemon-yellow custard, who drives a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle-the same car that had been following Ray's vehicle the night before on the rainy highway. This is Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), though we never hear anyone call him by name. He chews gum while he smokes, grins like a madman, and cracks inappropriate jokes.
The day after Abby's affair is discovered, in Marty's office at the roadhouse, Visser shoves a manila envelope across the desk at Marty, who curtly flips through the black-and-white photographs of his wife in bed with Ray. "I know a place you can get that framed," Visser drawls, snickering.
"What did you take these for?" Marty demands. "You called me, I knew they were there, so what do I need these for?"
"Call it a fringe benefit," Visser cackles, adding that he watched the couple make love most of the night. Marty pays Visser his fee, tossing an envelope stuffed with money at him so that it lands on the floor next to his chair.
Marty: "You know, in Greece they cut off the head of a messenger who brought bad news."
Visser: "Now, that don't make much sense."
Marty: "No. It just made them feel better." Visser: "Well, first off, Julian, I don't know what the story is in Greece, but in this state we got very definite laws about that. Second place, I ain't a messenger. I'm a private investigator. And third place-and most important-it ain't such bad news. I mean, you thought he was a colored. You're always assuming the worst. Anything else?"
Marty: "Yeah, don't come by here anymore. If I need you again, I know which rock to turn over."
This last biting comment gives Visser pause for a moment, but then he just laughs maniacally, saying, "That's good. `Which rock to turn over.' That's very good." As Visser ambles to the door, still chuckling at the cuckolded husband, he adds, "Well, gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can crawl around without it."
Marty chooses to be cruel to Visser, a man who is far from heroic, but whose presence in Marty's world was a result of Marty's invitation. Visser was merely doing the job Marty hired him to do. The audience is left to wonder, as the tragic events of the rest of the film unfold, whether things would have been different had Marty just paid Visser and left it at that, without verbally attacking Visser as a way of demonstrating his sense of moral superiority.
It's a small, seemingly insignificant choice, one of many that Marty and the other characters make throughout the film that lead to their downfalls. What if Abby had let Ray drive her to Houston as planned without inviting him to spend the night with her at the motel? What if, when he learned that Marty knew about the affair, Ray had walked away from Abby rather than pursue the relationship? What if? We are, the filmmakers seem to be saying, the authors of our own destruction, setting tragedy in motion-or avoiding it altogether-by the smallest decisions to turn, as it were, left instead of right, or to choose to follow our own lustful desires rather than doing the moral, sensible thing.
In the next scene, Ray takes Abby, who decides not to go to Houston after all, to her and Marty's house to collect a few things-namely, that little pearl-handled revolver. Then it's back to his apartment, where Abby waits while Ray runs an errand. Despite her warning him not to do anything stupid, Ray goes to the roadhouse to confront Marty, who is sitting out back, watching his employees dump empty liquor boxes into a tall incinerator. Ray wants the two-weeks' pay Marty owes him, but Marty refuses to pay, saying, "She's an expensive piece of ass."
The logical step would have been for the two rivals for Abby's affection to come to blows, but Marty engages in mental warfare instead, planting seeds of doubt about Abby's intentions toward Ray. Marty says she's probably sleeping with other people and mocks Ray for believing that Abby stayed in town to be with him. "What's really going to be funny is when she gives you that innocent look and says, `What're you talkin' about, Ray. I haven't done anything funny.'"
The next morning, Abby wakes up and walks into Ray's living room, where she's surprised to find her dog, Opal, panting and staring at her. Marty appears out of hiding and grabs Abby from behind, lifting her off her feet and dragging her outside with the intention of raping her. Abby, diminutive but feisty, grabs Marty's finger, bending it backward until it breaks with a satisfying crack. She then kicks him in the groin, sending him crawling pathetically across the lawn to retch on his knees.
Marty later tracks down Visser and offers him $10,000 to murder Abby and Ray. Visser, laughing most of the time, agrees and tells Marty to get out of town for a few days. Go to Corpus Christi and go fishing, he suggests. Get noticed.
That night, Visser appears ominously at Ray's apartment window while the illicit couple sleeps. He sneaks inside and steals Abby's .38, then goes back outside. Visser steps up to the window, and we see a flash of light, which we assume is the gun going off. Later, Visser meets with Marty back in his office at the roadhouse, where a string of dead fish sits morbidly on his desk. Again, he shoves across the desk a manila envelope with photographic evidence inside-black-and-white glossies of Ray and Abby in bed with what appear to be gunshot wounds riddling their upper bodies.
Marty is sick to his stomach, rushing to the nearby washroom to retch. (The Coens have an odd preoccupation with vomit, a peculiar leitmotif in many of their films.) Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Marty leans into his safe to get Visser's $10,000. What we don't know until later is that Marty has swapped the photo for a sign from the bathroom warning employees to wash their hands. It's the first of many double-crosses that will follow in quick succession as the plot of the film unfolds.
After handing over the cash, Visser asks Marty if he's been "very, very careful" about covering up his tracks. When Marty says he has, Visser shoots him in the chest with Abby's pearl-handled .38, drops the gun on the floor next to Marty's body, and leaves-forgetting to retrieve the Zippo lighter engraved with his name and "Elks Man of the Year" from under the pile of dead fish.
In the next scene, we learn that Abby and Ray are alive and well; Visser has doctored the photographs. The flash we saw that night outside Ray's apartment was a flashbulb from the private detective's camera. Ray leaves Abby at an apartment she's rented in town and returns to the roadhouse to try to collect the money Marty owes him. He discovers Marty's body and, seeing Abby's .38 on the floor, assumes she's killed him.
Instead of calling the police, Ray tries to clean up the bloody mess before hauling Marty's body to his car and driving off to bury him. Having second thoughts, Ray pulls over by a field on a long, empty stretch of road and runs away in a panic. When he returns to the car a few moments later, Marty's body is no longer in the backseat. Marty, it transpires, is not quite dead and has managed to crawl away from the car.
Ray drags Marty to the field, digs a hole, throws him in, and buries him alive. Thinking he was covering up his lover's murder, Ray becomes a murderer himself. He turns up at Abby's apartment some time later, clearly shaken, and tells her that he's "cleaned it all up." She has no idea what he's talking about. Frightened and confused, she says, "What're you talkin' about, Ray? I haven't done anything funny."
At last, Marty's words of warning come back to haunt Ray, and he starts to think Abby is playing him for the fool. The phone rings and Abby answers, but the caller says nothing. She assumes it's Marty and tells Ray as much. Ray, of course, assumes she's lying to him and storms out, telling her she "left her weapon behind" at the bar.
That night, alone in her cavernous apartment, Abby dreams that Marty appears-alive and menacing. "I love you," he says. "I love you too," she answers. "You're just saying that because you're scared," he growls, and adds, "You left your weapon behind," tossing the revolver at her. When she lunges to catch it, she sees that it's her makeup compact. Marty then doubles over in front of her, vomiting blood-and she awakens, covered in sweat.
In the morning, Abby goes to find Ray at his apartment. His belongings are in boxes, and he informs her that he's leaving town. When she asks why, he says he figured it's what she wanted. He asks her to come with him, but she says she first needs to know the truth. Abby assumes that Ray went to the bar to get his money from Marty, the two had a fight, and Ray killed Marty in self-defense. Ray tells Abby that Marty was killed with her gun. They're both confused and, stammering, Ray confesses: "The truth is, he was alive when I buried him." Abby runs away.
In the next scene, Ray returns yet again to the roadhouse, where someone has tried to break into the safe. Ray finds hidden inside the safe the doctored photograph of him and Abby in bed with gunshot wounds. He's starting to put things together, and when he gets in his car to drive away, he spots a man-Visser-watching him from his VW parked down the block.
Ray goes to Abby's apartment and waits there in the dark, staring out the enormous picture window. Abby walks in and turns the light on, but Ray shouts at her to turn it off because someone's watching. She does but then turns it back on, demanding an explanation of what's happened to Marty, and then Ray is blown forward by a rifle blast to the back, killing him.
Visser is perched atop the building across the street, shooting into the illuminated apartment. Abby cowers in the corner, throwing her shoe at the one exposed lightbulb until it breaks. Visser enters the apartment while Abby, thinking it's Marty come to kill her, flees to the bathroom. Visser rifles through Ray's pockets looking for his photograph-and, presumably, the missing Zippo that he left in Marty's office and thinks Ray has discovered and pocketed. Finding nothing, he stalks the apartment looking for Abby. When he enters the bathroom, it's empty.
Abby has managed to crawl out of the small bathroom window, onto a narrow ledge, and into the room next door. Visser reaches through the window, groping blindly, and Abby drives a knife into his hand, impaling it on the window ledge. Visser's agonized screams are horrific. He begins to shoot through the wall, illuminating Abby's dark hiding place with narrow shafts of light. He finally manages to shoot a big enough hole in the wall to reach through and pull the knife out of his hand. Abby runs into the corridor between the rooms, grabs her gun and trains it at the bathroom door. When she senses movement, she shoots, and we hear Visser's body drop to the floor.
"I ain't afraid of you, Marty," she says.
Mortally wounded and staring up at the sweating bathroom pipes, Visser cackles a wicked, crazy laugh and shouts, "If I see him, I'll sure give him the message." The film ends as the Four Tops begin to sing, "It's the same old song, but with a different meaning since you been gone."
* * *
Blood Simple takes its title from a line in Dashiell Hammett's masterful hard-boiled detective novel Red Harvest, in which the term blood simple is used to describe a kind of mania that takes over when people are exposed to bloody violence. The Coens' debut film is in many ways an homage to Hammett and film noir but with decidedly modern twists. Blood Simple uses the film noir themes of alienation, uncertainty, subterfuge, and double-cross-but it cleverly subverts and inverts them. Abby is seemingly guileless, hardly the femme fatale of classic noir films, though the men in her life still meet tragedy as a result of her actions. The Coens make effective use of film noir's fascination with light and dark-much of the deception and double-crossing happens under the cover of darkness. Yet, as the Bible says, all that is hidden shall be revealed in the light of day and by the light of truth.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY ...
Blood Simple is a meditation on free will. No one in the film is coerced into making mistakes. Their undoing is entirely their own. No one else is to blame. Each character, when presented with a choice to do the right thing, makes the wrong choice-with tragic results. Abby could have gone to Houston as planned and never hooked up with Ray. Ray could have turned her down when she suggested going to the motel. Marty could have divorced Abby without trying to seek revenge. Ray could have walked away with the girl and left his two-weeks' pay behind rather than confront Marty. Marty could have paid Visser without insulting him. Ray could have gone to the police when he found Marty's body. Abby could have gone to the police when she suspected Ray of murdering her husband. Each time, the players chose to cover up their sins rather than be exposed.
If just one of them had made the right choice, tragedy might have been averted. Every choice the characters made was pivotal. This reminds me of something the writer Frederick Buechner once said: "All moments are key moments." Buechner follows that thought with another: "Life itself is grace." But there is no divine intervention in the Coens' story-no redemption and no grace. Blood Simple is a cautionary tale about actions and reactions, reminding us that everything we do has consequences that cannot be avoided, no matter how hard we try to hide from them.