Citizen Kane aside, I can’t think of a more assured, confident, groundbreaking first film than this one. I mean, it had me from the opening frames and never let me go. I can almost hear M. Emmett Walsh (who got a big career boost from this movie), speaking over the shot of the bleak Texas plains:
The world is full o’ complainers. An’ the fact is, nothin’ comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, President of the United States or Man of the Year; somethin’ can all go wrong. Now go on ahead, y’know, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, ‘n 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, an’ down here… you’re on your own.
What unfolds then is the damnedest story, one where at almost any point if someone had said something, everything would have fallen into place and two people would have lived. But that’s the whole point. They became blood simple. So might we all, in a similar situation. The movie is bloody as hell, and not one drop of the blood is gratuitous. It is gruesome. A man is buried alive, another has his hand pinned to a windowsill with a knife. And it all worked. What a script.
And what acting. Dan Hedaya is another who got a lot of good parts based on his chilling performance. And of course there is Frances McDormand. This is her first screen credit. She came out of nowhere (Chicago, actually), and just kept going. I’ve never seen her be less than great in any of her films. She married Joel Coen soon after this picture, and has been in a bunch of Coen films. I’d have sworn she was from Texas after seeing this film, but she’s equally at ease as a Minnesotan in her Oscar-winning role in Fargo. She’s willing to take non-starring roles, and still works in the theater when she can. One hell of an actress.