Blood Simple

bloodsimple-big1

Today we revisit the past with another review salvaged from the internet archive. I have added a fresh coat of paint to make it consistent with the finalized set of five questions. A link to the script can be found here.

This is, in my opinion, a truly great script. Maybe only three or four halting half steps away from the mythical creature of screenwriting legend, a Perfect Script. The authors set out to accomplish an end delineated by their choice of title; they want to show us what it means to be Blood Simple. [The title is a reference to Red Harvest by Hammett– “This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives”.] The question the script asks is: what does it take to lose your mind and do all sorts of atrocious things? Four different answers are given: none of them amount to a significant reason.

In short, I thought it brilliant.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Without doubt, I am inadequate to the task of “grading” these two on their dialogue. They’re masters of dialogue—and I, I am but a poor player in comparison. With that disclaimer out of the way, I’ll go ahead and “grade them anyway”.

[Sidenote: The end of this draft (on the site forums) of the script contains a deleted scene with some actual commentary from the Coen brothers. The scene is brilliant and they still cut it. It didn’t, they felt at the time, serve the story. An example of writerly fortitude, or just an error?]

Part A.) These two definitely go the iceberg route. They just drop us into the deep end of their story and could care less if we sink or swim. Not one thing in the script struck me as only expository. We do not get pages of backstory about Abby, Ray, Meurice, Marty, and Visser; we get to know them as they already are—dealing with the vagaries of their particular lives.

This script handles its exposition perfectly:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) It also overflows with subtext. [In fact, this script TAUGHT me how to understand subtext. A debt for which, I can never repay the Brothers.] I’ll limit myself to my favorite example. From pages 11-12:

MARTY
You won’t have to. I’ll explain what
a palate is.

DEBRA
You won’t have to. I just wanted to
see if you knew.

Marty smiles bleakly. Debra drains her glass as Meurice
returns. He sets another Cognac in front of Debra, and a
glass of milk in front of Marty.

MARTY
What’s this?

MEURICE
You said the usual–

MARTY
Red Label.

MEURICE
(picking up the milk)
Right. Sorry.

MARTY
Pour that back.

MEURICE
What.

MARTY
Don’t throw that out.

MEURICE
Right.

He wanders on down the bar; Marty’s attention returns to the
woman.

MARTY
So how long have you know Meurice?

DEBRA
About ten years.

Marty’s attention is caught by something down the bar. He
half-rises from his stool.

MARTY
What–Waitaminute–What…
HIS POV
Meurice is pouring the milk down the sink. He looks innocently
up.

MEURICE
What.

BACK TO MARTY
Angry but not knowing what to say. He glances around the
bar, sinks slowly back onto his stool.

MARTY
Deuce in the corner needs help.

MEURICE
Right.

Marty sits staring across the bar for a moment, nods a couple
of times at nothing in particular, then looks back at the
woman.

MARTY
…So what’re you doing tonight?

DEBRA
Going out with Meurice.

Marty tosses a beer nut into his mouth.

MARTY
Tell him you have a headache.
Debra gives him a level stare.

DEBRA
It’ll pass.

I think I could write a whole “first year” essay JUST on the subtext in this one scene. In the interest of time and readability, I’ll just point out the DOMINANT subtext.

Marty demands respect and no one in his world will give it to him. Not even those that HE CONSIDERS his subordinates. By the end, this need drives him, literally, to his grave.

I’m probably skimming close to overdoing the praise at this point, but I also have to call it like I see it, and this is just unabashedly brilliant—in my opinion.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) Are the characters differentiable? Yes. Absolutely. Another homerun by The Brothers Coen. The characters are so differentiable they just feel real. I know these people. Or, at least, I know people exactly like these people.

10 out of 10 points. [And if it were permissible, I’d give them 20]

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

We begin with a genre-characteristic (VO). It also serves, as we would expect, as a statement of theme.

It doesn’t matter who you are, your plans can go wrong. And when they do, you’re on your own.

In bumper sticker jargon, this is: survival of the fittest.

The middle of page 1 establishes the mood and tone. In a minute, I will argue this is master-class level mood and tone setting.

Then we begin an exchange between the Man and the Woman in the car.

WOMAN
…He gave me a little pearl-handled
.38 for out first anniversary.
MAN

Uh-huh.

WOMAN
…Figured I’d better leave before I
used it on him. I don’t know how you
can stand him.

MAN
Well, I’m only an employee, I ain’t
married to him.

We learn the woman’s in a bad marriage because of the lines about the .38 being a FIRST ANNIVERSARY present; we are not told this with a bunch of hard-to-read exposition.

We learn the Man, the Woman, and the [as yet unknown Husband] all knew each other well before our story begins from the “I’m only an employee, I ain’t married to him”.

I’d also suggest, we know these two are doing something illicit. We don’t know what that is yet, but their conversation has an undeniable feeling of impropriety.

As their dialogue progresses, we learn a few more things. The Woman wonders if her [still unnamed Husband] is:

sick? Mentally?…
Or is it maybe me, do you think?

And we also find out that our illicit assumption is correct:

WOMAN
I’ll figure something out… How
come you offered to drive me in this
mess?

MAN
I told you. I like you.

WOMAN
See, I never knew that.

MAN
Well now you do.

We end page 2 with the following:

Suddenly:

WOMAN
Stop the car, Ray!

CLOSE SHOT BRAKE

Stamped on.

EXT. CAR

Low three-quarters on the car as it squeals to a halt.

A car that has been following screeches to a halt just behind
it.

In the middle of all this talk about guns, and mentally unstable husbands, and always liking the wives of these mentally unstable husbands, we discover that someone is following this Man and Woman.

On page 3, the car that is following us, waits. Several beats. Then, it slowly passes us. As the car drives by, the driver of the car stares Abby [the Woman] down. Abby confirms that she doesn’t know the person. But the staring spooks her. Maybe, she thinks, she’s just making a mistake?

She asks Ray [the Man] if he meant what he said about liking her. Yeah, he meant it, but there’s no point in doing anything about that now.

For ¾ of a page, Ray and Abby debate whether there is a point or not.

The middle of page 4 finds them in a motel room bed with an obvious answer to their question.

They wake in the morning from a phone call. Ray answers. The voice on the other end is ambiguously threatening. Ray hangs up and Abby wants to know who it was.

RAY
Your husband.

On 6, we close in on a photograph of Ray and Abby in the motel room bed together. We’re in a “back room” sort of office, and we’re meeting Visser a private investigator, and Julian Marty—Abby’s husband.

Page 7 lets us know that Marty is unhappy with the photographs. He just wanted to know it. He didn’t want to see it. [A fact which is psychologically revealing, for sure.]

We also get some highlighted information with Visser’s cigarette lighter. This is so obviously highlighted, that it works very well as a signal to the reader. REMEMBER this for later, the authors are saying.

The rest of 7 to the bottom of 8 is a verbal fist fight between Visser and Marty. Marty makes subtextual threats and Visser deflects them with light humor. Their responses here are microcosms of their responses later. Marty ends up dying because he’s willing to go to any length not to be seen as a joke– he takes things too seriously. Visser ends up dying because he doesn’t take things seriously enough.

The rest of 8 to the bottom of 10, introduce the only other character we need to pull this story off. Meurice. He’s a bartender at Marty’s bar. He takes Marty’s money, but has no respect for him.

All of this is very good, and it ensures that I will read to the end. The premise has been established [adultery], and we know from all the references to violence that some of the people we’ve met in these first 10 aren’t going to be alive when we get to the end.

20 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) I’m a broken record, I know, but I’m really impressed with how the authors set their story up. Basically, from page 10 to page 24 Marty endures one embarrassment after another.

Meurice one-ups him with the pretty girl at the bar AND gives him a glass of milk.

Ray comes back to the bar to demand two weeks of pay he’s owed. I mean, Ray stole Marty’s WIFE from him, and he’s coming back to ask for money? That is definitely not taking Marty seriously.

Marty does get his eventual measure of revenge in this same scene when he plants the seed in Ray’s mind that leads to Ray’s eventual death—No man can trust Abby.

After this, Marty, in a fit of jealousy, breaks into Ray’s apartment, and pushes Abby outside while Ray sleeps. His dialogue suggests that he intends to rape her in Ray’s front yard.

Instead, Abby breaks his finger and kicks him in the groin.

Ray comes out with Abby’s .38, causing Marty to run for his car. He floors it down the street.

In a bit of perfect symbolism, given what the authors are trying to do, the street is a dead end. Marty is forced to turn around and drive back by his estranged wife and his former employee—who is now his estranged wife’s new lover.

The first act stage has been set to perfection. We now have a character whose flaw is overreacting to what he believes is the world’s pervasive inability to take him seriously. The authors then have everyone in this character’s world NOT take him seriously to an alarming [even for someone without this flaw] degree. What choice does a character like this have? He demands to be taken seriously. He is refused. There is only one option left, eliminate the sources of his current embarrassment.

Marty hires Visser to kill Ray and Abby.

Visser agrees. We think he even finished the job when, on page 39, he shows Marty a picture of Ray and Abby’s bullet riddled, blood stained corpses.

At his bar office, Marty pays up for the crime. Visser gives a line about how he must have gone “money-simple” to have carried out the job… too much risk… they’re going to be found out.

To tie things up better, Visser pulls Abby’s gun from his coat [he stole it while spying on the couple] and shoots Marty in the chest.

Marty falls to the floor. Dead. Visser collects his photograph of the dead couple [at least, he thinks he collects it], and his money, but he forgets that damn highlighted piece of information from the first 10. The cigarette lighter with his name engraved on it. He leaves that sitting on Marty’s desk beneath a couple of dead fish.

To sum up the story to this point: A guy hires another guy to kill his wife and her lover. Our theme reminds us that no matter who we are, our plans are LIKELY to go astray. After which, we’re on our own.

Naturally, the authors then begin randomly screwing up the plans of all of their characters.

Overall, I think the setups and reveals work well. There are, however, at least three fierce “stretches” to the structure, in my opinion.

It’s hard to believe that Ray makes such a ridiculously large Blood Simple error of not noticing that Marty is still alive when he loads him into his car to dispose of his “body”.

It’s also strange that it takes Visser so long to realize the photo discrepancy, AND that he’s missing his lighter. [How long does he go in between cigarettes?]

I flex back and forth between thinking these three things are unanswerable challenges to the integrity of the story structure:

2 out of 10 points.

Part B) The “engine” of this story then, is to see what depths of depravity humans will sink to– when their plans are interrupted. We are intended to view what it means to be Blood Simple.

Right after Visser leaves, Ray shows up at the bar. He’s going to get his money even if he has to steal it from the safe. He finds Marty dead, and Abby’s gun on the floor. He makes a natural assumption—Abby killed him.

BEFORE HE CAN PROCESS THIS, Meurice brings a girl to the bar for an after hours date. Ray, therefore, does the natural thing—while the jukebox plays loud music, he cleans up the mess and puts the dead Marty into his car.

He drives off into what he thinks is a secluded area of highway—and gets the shock of his life when Marty starts groaning from the backseat.

Ray stops the car, runs out into the night to try AND PROCESS this information. Meanwhile, Marty escapes into a field, on his hands and knees.

Ray tries, but can’t manage, to just kill Marty. [The implication is that he’s not up to looking Marty “in the eye” while he kills him.] So, he digs a grave and buries him alive instead.

He then calls Abby from a pay phone and tells her he loves her and he’s taken care of everything. Abby thanks him, for calling. Ray PROCESSES this as gratitude for cleaning up her attempted murder.

Meanwhile, Visser realizes that Marty tricked him with the photographs AND he forgot his lighter at Marty’s bar. He has, in other words, made a couple of mistakes. He goes back to the bar to clean up where he calls…

Ray and Abby’s apartment while they are in the middle of an argument about Marty’s death. Visser says nothing and hangs up. Ray asks who was on the phone. Abby ASSUMES it was Marty and says so. This seals Ray’s fate because Ray ASSUMES Abby’s lying. Didn’t Marty tell him that she couldn’t be trusted? In his mind, this is a new boyfriend—right after he just buried someone alive in order to protect her.

All of the capitalized words in that quasi plot summary point to the engine of this script. We are moved through this script by characters inaccurately interpreting information because of being under the strain of their circumstances. They are, in other words, reacting to the world in a Blood Simple way.

This engine is constant and applies to all the main characters, but who is the protagonist? I choose Abby because she survives… because surviving makes her an instantiation of the theme.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) I stopped the plot summary short in the previous parts because I want to look at the resolution of the story through the lens of the theme we were given in the opening VO. Of the four main characters, only Abby survives. What does her survival imply about the Brother’s theme? In what sense, was she “the fittest” of these four to deal with the consequences of going Blood Simple.

First, let’s look at why the other three characters die.

Marty: He brings about his own death. His fanatical opposition to being seen as a “joke” leads him to get involved with Visser. His Blood Simple error is trusting Visser because Visser seems to be a means of making him [Marty] serious. BUT, we all know Visser isn’t the person to take anything serious. All he does is joke.

Visser: He dies because he can’t take Abby seriously as a threat. He even stops in his assault on her apartment to raid her refrigerator for a beer. His Blood Simple error is not understanding that SOMETIMES, you have to take things seriously. [Even his dying words are a joke.]

Ray: He dies because he doesn’t trust Abby. He makes two Blood Simple ASSUMPTIONS about her. She tried to kill Marty; she doesn’t like him as much as she says she does. EITHER of these would have been cleared up had he just asked.

bs3With that said, why does Abby live?

She lives because her Blood Simple error HAPPENS to empower her. She ASSUMES Marty is the one coming to kill her in her apartment at the end. She doesn’t know she’s up against Visser. She has no idea there even is a Visser.

Marty is old hat, she always beats Marty. She’s able to kill Visser because she THINKS he is Marty. Sometimes, it seems, the Blood Simple error you make can preserve you.

Of course, none of this would have happened had Abby not made one other mistake, on page 55:

ABBY
Ray?… What time is it?

RAY
I don’t know. It’s early… I love
you.

A beat.

ABBY
…You all right?

RAY
I don’t know. I better get off now.

The continuing crane down reveals Ray in a phone booth in
the foreground.

ABBY
Okay, see ya… Thanks, Ray.

She underestimated how much Ray cared for her. You don’t bury someone alive to cover up their “crime” if you just kinda like someone.

I, therefore, delineate the pinch point as being Abby’s response to Ray’s declaration of love:

ABBY
Okay, see ya… Thanks, Ray.

This is immaculate structuring. She demonstrates the script’s theme, SHE MAKES AN ERROR IN JUDGMENT, before the script even begins. She asks Ray for help in escaping Marty not understanding that Ray is in love with her [and must have been for some time].

Page 55 is a little early in a 93 page script to be delivering your pinch point. The script continues to pulse until its end, but not as fiercely:

3 out of 5 points.

Part D) So far we have hinted that the script’s theme has had to do with “survival of the fittest”. When we unpacked what “fittest” meant, it turned out that it had to do with making the most fortuitous error. You have to be lucky ESPECIALLY when you are wrong. In bumperstickerspeak we could say:

The inability to communicate destroys the connections between people.

Of course, I’ve designed that bumpersticker to be bloated and unwieldy because I am hiding my best reveal for last.

I am [literally] amazed that way back in 1984 the Brothers knew what they were going to spend the rest of their career writing about. They either knew it then, or it was so ingrained in their personality that acts as a filter through which no other ideas can pass. I don’t think it takes much effort to twist:

The inability to communicate destroys the connections between people.

And make it bleed:

Love is impossible.

You have to give the Brothers their due, they are consistent.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Parts A&B) I”ll start the discussion by looking at the third cluster of images in this script:

INT. CAR NIGHT

We are looking at the backs of two people in the front seat–
a man, driving, and a woman next to him.

Their conversation will be punctuated by the occasional glare
of oncoming headlights and the roar of the car rushing by.

The windshield wipers wave a soporific beat. The conversation
is halting, awkward.

I know these guys are writing this for themselves to shoot, but I love the way they orient us in the scene. “We are looking at the backs” of our characters. Placing us in the scene behind the characters carries with it a host of implications which something generic like:

Two people sit in a car. The man drives…

…can’t conjure. Since we are behind these characters, we get it. We are not meant to experience the story as them.

We are here to pass judgment on them.

Additionally, I love how the second sentence:

Their conversation will be punctuated by the occasional glare
of oncoming headlights and the roar of the car rushing by.

…also sets the mood. I see this as a pulsing glare and roar. It reminds me of an accelerated heartbeat.

But the reason I chose this description is for this:

The windshield wipers wave a soporific beat.

“Soporific”, really? I’ll argue that this is another of those, what I call, “announcement of intentions” [sometime during the intervening four years I’ve dropped this “nomenclature”] moments. These guys are putting us on warning—sit up and pay attention, smart people with big vocabularies are in the building. We get this word in the first half page, and all I can say about this is: If you’re going to do this, your script BETTER back it up. Fortunately for the Brothers, their script does.

Lastly, look closely at the imagery in this description. Everything in it alternates. There is a metronome-like switching quality to every description. We flip between darkness and glaring light with the approaching headlights. We have the doppler effect of the roar of passing cars. The windshield wipers undercut all the imagery with a soft drumbeat that hypnotizes—or in the Coen brothers lexicon, puts us to sleep.

Maybe Poe or Conrad more effectively set a tone with an opening image than today’s authors, but these guys are definitely in rarefied air.

The next example I include because it shows when to use a lot of description about a scene location if you’re trying to make a larger point. From page 14:

BILLIARD ROOM

It is a paneled, carpeted room with black leather furniture
and a nine-foot billiard table. Various stuffed animal
trophies are scattered around the room, including a moose
head mounted on one wall. Ray stands alone in the foreground,
shooting pool, an unlit cigarette in his mouth. The room is very quiet.

For sure, that’s over-described from the usual perspective. It works perfectly, though [in this context] for two reasons:

1. We now know exactly what sort of man Marty is.
2. We’re not the important ones who are learning this. This description is meant for Ray. He NOW knows exactly what sort of man he’s dealing with.

One last example, from page 53:

EXT. OPEN FIELD SUNRISE

The staccato beat of the shovel slamming against earth drops
out at the cut. There is perfect quiet. The sun is just
peeping over the horizon. In the foreground Ray is sitting
in the open door of his car, smoking a cigarette. His gaze
is fixed on a spot offscreen.

HIS POV

A house. Quite near by.

Man, is that chilling or what? Ray has just spent most of the night burying Marty- ALIVE.

Then the sun comes up and he realizes he’s done all this with a house “quite near by”.

I love his reaction too. He just sits and stares at it. In other words, he has no idea what to do. Brilliant and chilling.

10 out of 10 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

If I’ve learned anything from reading 11 Coen Brothers scripts [and writing extensively about them], it’s that the Brothers aren’t on this earth preaching anything near harmony. They are all about discord.

What I love about this one, since it is their first effort, is that they weren’t quite as sure when they first began. Visser and Marty are classic Coen Brothers character, as is Abby, but Ray, still believes love is possible.

The fact that his love isn’t reciprocated is a matter for another day:

10 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 90

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