Joel and Ethan Coen ( Contemporary Film Directors Series)

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"There is as yet only one book length analysis of any note [about the Coen Brothers] by a film scholar: R. Barton Palrmer's Joel and Ethan Coen (2004). . . . This is a book for those who have already made the acquaintance of the Coens through their films and are now ready to think about their work seriously."—Film International
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252029363
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2004
  • Series: Contemporary Film Directors Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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Joel and Ethan Coen

By R. Barton Palmer


Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

Chapter One

A Different Meaning for the Same Old Song: Blood Simple

I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner and I don't know who's hitting me. -Detective Brad Galt, in The Dark Corner (Henry Hathaway, 1946)

At the New York Film Festival in 1984, the biggest hit with audiences was Blood Simple, and it was no rarefied art house production like so many festival winners of the decade, most notably David Lynch's Eraserhead, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise, and Todd Haynes's Poison. Blood Simple was the first feature effort for an unknown writing-directing team of brothers from Minnesota, and it was a true independent, having been made on a very limited budget with no studio financing or distribution guarantee. Even so, the film struck many in New York as much more commercial than the usual, rough-edged independent entry. Blood Simple displays a surprisingly professional polish. And it hardly respects the central elements of cinematic modernism most often reverently featured in festival entries. Blood Simple eschews the self-conscious exploration of unusual character or weighty theme. It does not, in the name of anti-pleasure, deconstruct Hollywood conventions such as linear narrative, plausible plotting, and continuity editing. With their sights set firmly on careers in the industry, the young Minnesotans had opted instead for the more visceral appeals of the classic studio thriller.

A Commercial/Independent Film

Based on the Coen brothers' original screenplay, Blood Simple nonetheless draws heavily on the well-worn conventions of noir film and classic American crime fiction, especially the novels of James M. Cain (though the title comes from a phrase in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest). In effect, the film that wowed viewers was nothing less, and quite a bit more, than a finely crafted genre exercise.

Doubtless, the Coens had taken this studio-era type in a different direction, especially in terms of theme and setting, as the film's striking beginning makes apparent. Blood Simple opens not with a dismal view of the archetypal threatening city, but with a montage of bleak landscapes. A low angle shot captures a highway stretching into the distance, empty save for a shredded tire prominent in the foreground. An expansive vista of ugly yellow prairie betrays no sign of human presence except for the oil wells, slowly pumping, that penetrate it at irregular intervals. A drive-in movie theater sits baking in the sun, no picture flashing across its blank screen. Suddenly, a drawling and not too friendly voice fixes the meaning of these inhospitable images. "The world is full of complainers," the man mutters with world weariness, imparting what seems to be his philosophy of life, "but the fact is that nothing comes with a guarantee." The speaker's intent, however, is not just to offer backhanded praise to the free enterprise system and the American dream (as contrasted with Russia, where people earn only "fifty cent a day," as he observes later in the film). He is also eager to explain the individualist ethos that dominates life in Texas, where "you're on your own."

The narrative that follows illustrates the complex connections between these two truths. The relentless pursuit of self-interest motors the plot, even as intention has little to do with outcome. No matter how well conceived, the characters' plans are derailed by mischance and play out to the fatal bad luck of both this seedy opportunist and most of his fellows -who are hardly his moral superiors. Ironically, at film's end the only survivor in this world ruled by the principle of red tooth and claw is the woman whose weakness and dissatisfaction set the story into motion. She saves herself against all odds, but this is more a matter of random good fortune than of either sangfroid or intelligence (though she displays more of these qualities than do the men in the story). The man who loves her cannot protect her, despite his best efforts, all of which prove misguided. When she most needs him, he lies dead at her feet (shot in the back by an unseen assailant, fittingly enough). Isolation is thus shown to result from misunderstanding, mischance, and mistrust. At least in the world the film conjures into existence, isolation in fact seems to be an inalterable condition of human experience. And thus, as the narrator remarks, there truly is no point in complaining. No authority figures appear who might listen, and in any case, the law is entirely absent. Even the innocent never think to appeal to it.

What is most certain is uncertainty itself, the fact that "something can always go wrong," as the narrator wryly observes, scorning those without the guts to face the worst. His own plans are clever, perhaps ingenious, but they too run afoul of the unforeseen. In the end, however, he is undone by obsessive thoughts of insecurity, which, of course, are hardly unjustified. Imagining the worst but misreading the threat he actually faces, he ironically brings on his own death, killed by the woman he tries to murder, who thinks he is someone else. But, dying, he knows better than to voice dissatisfaction at the outcome, even though this irony of her misunderstanding prompts a bitter laugh. This story differs in many details from Cain's novel Double Indemnity, which seems to have been the Coens' main inspiration. But the screenwriters were obviously inspired by the self-destructive fatality of Cain's conclusion, where the adulterous and husband-murdering couple, having boarded a boat to Mexico, contemplate suicide by throwing themselves into the shark-infested waters. In Blood Simple, too, death is the end toward which the desire of every character seems to lead. Like the bewildered and rightly paranoid protagonist in that most typical film noir, The Dark Corner, the characters in Blood Simple find themselves trapped in an unfathomable universe of deadly violence.

Like Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Blood Simple opens with a romance born of necessity, dissatisfaction, and opportunity. A man and a woman explore the possibilities of a relationship, their barely visible heads framed in the darkness against the rain-swept windshield of a car speeding off toward distant lights. Ray (John Getz) is driving Abby (Frances McDormand), the wife of his boss, Marty, a local bar owner, to Houston, some miles distant from the small town where they live. She has determined, if vaguely and impulsively, to begin a new life apart from her husband. The two discover they are being trailed by a man who later turns out to be a private detective-and the film's narrator. Marty (Dan Hedaya) had hired Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to follow his wife because this is not the first time she has left him. Abby says to Ray, "I just think I'm making a mistake," but, instead of returning to her husband, she decides to spend the night with Ray in a nearby motel, perhaps fearful that their pursuer intends them some harm. Ray, after all, had confessed to "always liking" her, and this seems reason enough for a sexual escapade. But this roadside refuge provides the new couple with no protection from the detective's curiosity as he manages to photograph them making love. He then informs Marty, whose phone call finds Ray in flagrante delicto. Why begin an affair in the presence of the detective hired to follow her? Perhaps Abby intends the detective to discover them, thinking his report will wound Marty. Perhaps she feels the need of a male protector now that she knows Marty won't let her be. We never learn; like many of the crucial turnings in this narrative, her motive remains a mystery.

In any event, Visser does bring incriminating photographs to a sullen Marty, who hadn't asked for them. The husband's unpleasant shiftiness contrasts interestingly with Visser's faux joviality and unashamed self-possession. None of the characters in Blood Simple is particularly sympathetic. The encounter with the smirking detective, who obviously relished observing the illicit couple's night of lovemaking, is yet another blow to the husband's pride, which has even more to suffer. The lovers return to town, and Ray confronts Marty, who tells him that Abby is in the habit of running off with other men, which is why he had her followed. Abby decides to move in with Ray, but Marty surprises her at his apartment one morning. The husband's attempted abduction fails, however, when Abby manages, with two swift and emasculating gestures, to, first, break his index finger and, then, kick him brutally in the groin. Marty vomits and slinks away before Ray, wakened by the noise, can confront him.

Unable to repossess Abby by force, Marty determines to destroy both her and Ray, hiring Visser for the job. But the detective, though tempted by the money he is offered, admits to some misgivings. What is to prevent Marty from going "simple" on him once blood is spilled? And why should he trust Marty not to betray him? It turns out later that Visser's suspicions are correct, but by then it no longer matters. Wary, Visser accepts the job and orders Marty to spend a few days at the coast in order to set up an alibi. Relishing the erstwhile lovers' imminent destruction, Marty suggests that the two may be disposed of in the huge furnace used for burning waste that sits behind his bar. The detective, however, has a different plan in mind. Once again, he takes photographs of a sleeping Ray and Abby, but this time he doctors the images to make it appear the couple has been shot dead. When Marty returns from his fishing trip, Visser goes to his office at the bar to show him proof of a job completed and collect his fee. He asks for the photograph back before quite suddenly shooting Marty with Abby's pistol, which he had earlier stolen. Apparently, he hopes to implicate her in the crime, from which only he will then profit. He leaves the gun on the office floor. This scheme will work, however, only if he has come away with the photograph and has left no trace of his presence. It turns out that he fails on both counts. Something, indeed, can always go wrong, as Marty might now agree with him.

Nothing, however, is quite what it seems. Before Marty can be discovered, Ray calls at his office, kicking Abby's gun with his foot (it fires, leaving only one of its three cartridges undischarged). Seeing Marty shot and apparently dead in his chair, Ray concludes that Abby must have killed him. He determines to clean up the crime scene so that her involvement will not be suspected, mopping the blood up with a satin jacket that only spreads it across the floor, and then loading the body into his car so that he can bury it in the desert. And so he does, but not before making a shocking discovery. Though obviously mortally wounded, Marty is not yet dead, and Ray proves unable to finish him off with a blow from his shovel. Instead, he buries the shrieking man alive. Horrified at his experience but understanding it as the inarguable proof of his deepening love for Abby, Ray calls her from a nearby gas station but finds no words to describe what he has done.

Later, when they are together, he manages: "I took care of everything." But Abby doesn't know what he is talking about. She asks him what happened. But he says that's not important, thinking Abby is simply asking for details. The selfless act Ray thought would cement their relationship begins through this misunderstanding to tear them apart, feeding suspicions about her promiscuity planted earlier in his mind by Marty. The phone rings; Abby picks it up. No voice can be heard. Abby thinks it must be Marty, as she tells Ray. Puzzled by what he believes must be a lie, Ray concludes that some other man is phoning Abby, as Marty had warned him would happen. The caller, in fact, is the now panicked detective, who has made two disturbing discoveries: that the envelope he thought had contained the photograph does not (Marty had hidden it in the safe, intending to use it against Visser); and that a cigarette lighter sporting his initials was left behind at the scene of the crime.

Visser breaks into Ray's apartment, rifles through Abby's tote bag, but does not find what he is looking for (the lighter? the photograph? some other clue to what is now happening?). Meanwhile, Ray's strange behavior has aroused Abby's suspicions; she goes to Mary's office, sees bloodstains on the floor, and finds a hammer, wrapped in a towel, that had apparently been used unsuccessfully to open Marty's safe. It was Visser who in fact made the attempt, thinking to recover his photograph. Abby concludes that Ray has killed Marty after she learns from another of Marty's employees that her husband had reported a good deal of money missing from the safe. He blamed Ray. This was to be Marty's explanation for the money he used to pay Visser. Ray, in turn, is convinced that Abby has betrayed him with someone else, and he makes preparations to leave town. Before he does so, however, he goes to the office once more, opens Marty's safe, and discovers the incriminating photograph, giving no indication that he understands what it means. He then goes to see Abby (to reconcile with her? to warn her of danger? to ask about the photograph?). What is the meaning of that glimpse of himself ostensibly lying dead? It must be that Ray has just seen what the future, the immediate future in fact, holds in store.

Walking into Abby's apartment that night, he warns her that the room has no curtains. He asks her to turn out the light, but she refuses (once again not understanding his meaning), and the detective, who had taken an apartment across the street, suddenly shoots Ray dead with a hunting rifle. What Visser intends is never made clear. Does he think that Ray and Abby have figured out his scheme to murder Marty and implicate them? Does he believe that if Ray and Abby are killed this will somehow shift any suspicion that the photograph and lighter might arouse if discovered? Has he concluded that Marty, whose body is gone when he returns to force open the safe, has survived long enough to engineer some plot against him, enlisting the help of Ray and Abby? Is he simply eager to retrieve the photograph and lighter, thinking that the lovers have somehow acquired them? Whatever his motive, Visser, with no little irony, finds himself attempting to do exactly what Marty had commissioned. But the job, which no longer requires simply shooting helpless sleepers, proves beyond him.

After Ray is killed, Abby shatters the ceiling lamp so that she cannot be shot in the same way, finally convinced of the wisdom of Ray's warning. Trapped, she awaits her attacker.


Excerpted from Joel and Ethan Coen by R. Barton Palmer Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : a brief portrait of the artists 1
1 A different meaning for the same old song : Blood simple 15
2 The Coen brothers : postmodern filmmakers 36
3 Uncertainty principle : The man who wasn't there 62
4 The exotic everyday : Fargo 80
5 The artist, mass culture, and the common man : Barton Fink and Raising Arizona 103
6 Classic Hollywood redivivus : The Hudsucker proxy and O brother, where art thou? 132
The Coen brothers interviewed 159
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