Saturday, October 31, 2009

Blood Simple -- guarantees, isolation and tests

Director: Joel Coen, 1984.

A quarter century ago a pair of fresh young film-makers hit the scene. They were the brothers Coen. This was their first film, but it contains seeds of the greatness that was to come, with foreshadowings of both Fargo and their Best Picture Oscar, No Country for Old Men.

Like No Country, Blood Simple is set in Texas. But where the later film used the harsh landscape almost as a character, here is is used simply as a backdrop for a film noir. Like any good noir, the private eye provides voice-over narration. Well, at least for the opening scene, but that's all that's needed to provide context for what is about to unfold:
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.
Two major themes emerge from this initial soliloquy: guarantees and isolation.

Like most film noir, the premise is clear: cuckolded husband hires a man to kill his wife. But the characters are complex: a cheating wife and a jealous husband, a committed lover and a jaded detective.

When Marty (Dan Hedaya) finds out that his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is sleeping with his employee Ray (John Getz), he solicits the private eye who discovered the adulterous pair in the act, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), to murder them both. A simple, if sinful, proposition, yet Marty doesn't count on the depths of deceit of the detective, whose greed outstrips his guile. Double-cross follows double-cross until it is unclear whose heart is the coldest.

Of the four main characters, Visser is the simplest and the wickedest. Contrary to film noir norms, this private detective is no good guy. He is not even gray and shadowy. He is cold and cunning, manipulating and malevolent. Although he prefers to stay within the law, he has no conscience about crossing the line if the price is right. Honor and honesty are words absent from his phrasebook. The Coens even portray his evil with careful camera work that focuses on the sweat that slowly slides down his face and the flies that alight on his head. The diseases that the flies may carry are nothing compared to the wickedness that he harbors in his heart. This, combined with a satanic laugh, makes Visser a vile villain.

Since Marty is the husband wronged, he might be the sympathetic hero. But he is loud and obnoxious, and a would-be murderer. He has no charm, no heart, only a love of money. He wants his pound of flesh. He wants his guarantees. But, "nothin' comes with a guarantee," and Marty finds out first-hand how true this is in painful and humiliating ways.

Speaking of guarantees, Benjamin Franklin once said, "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Even Jesus needed to pay taxes when he walked the earth, though he came up with the money in a miraculous manner (Matt. 17:27). And Jesus faced death, an ignominious penal death by crucifixion. The penalty, though, was not his but ours. Jesus died on our behalf to take the punishment for our sins, that we might find forgiveness and freedom to live in him (Eph. 1:7). Visser was wrong; life comes with a guarantee. We face a choice with two guaranteed outcomes: new life in Jesus (Matt. 25:34) or separation from God apart from him (Matt. 25:41, 46).

Unlike Marty, Abby is the real protagonist in this dark film. Though she sets the wheels in motion with her infidelities, she remains in the dark through most of the narrative. Separated from Marty, when Ray becomes guilt-crazed in a Macbethian manner, Abby realizes she has no one to turn to. She is isolated, on her own. And she does not really know what is happening around her.

Abby may be alone, but we have a guarantee of community and fellowship with Jesus. When we trust him, we are brought into his family as children of God (). Moreover, we become members of the body of Christ, the church universal, even if we are not attending a local church. Best of all, Jesus promises never to leave us or forsake us (). Others might walk away, leaving us like Abby to face our enemies apart from other people. But Jesus will always be with us.

And then there's Ray. When we first meet Ray he seems just a small-town hick, harmless enough. But the way of the adultress is death, as Proverbs says (Prov. 2:16-19). His choices cause him to slide slowly down the slippery slope. But it his love, misplaced though it may be, that drives him there. Visser, the film's anti-conscience, speaks to Marty in one scene about getting our hands dirty. "That's the test, ain't it? Test of true love." Ray in his ignorance misreads the signs and seeks to save his "true love" Abby by getting his hands down and dirty. But at what cost.

Jesus got his hands dirty for us. He humbled himself by clothing his godness in humanity (Phil. 2:6-7). Then he had his hands pierced, nailed to the rough wood of a cross of execution (Acts 2:23). He died to save his true love, humanity; you and me. What we could not do, he did for us. And unlike Ray, Jesus was able to complete his mission, saving us in his love. Our life comes through Jesus' blood simple.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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