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‘Blood Simple’ Retrospective: Coolidge Corner Celebrates $12.5 Million Renovation with ‘Big Screen Debuts’

Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen - 4 Stars

The marquee of the Coolidge Corner Theater.
The marquee of the Coolidge Corner Theater. By Courtesy of Wikipedia and Courtesy of Greg Kullberg
By Joseph A. Johnson, Crimson Staff Writer

The Coolidge Corner Theater has reinvented itself time and time again. In fact, the building was a church until 1933, when it officially opened its doors as an Art Deco movie palace. The building would go on to become an arthouse filmhouse, then a struggling nonprofit, and today a flourishing testament to mainstream and fringe entertainment alike. The theater recently underwent a $12.5 million 14,000 square foot renovation over a decade in the making, including two new theaters and a cutting-edge community center. To celebrate, the theater is hosting a “Big Screen Debuts” series through March, during which the debut films of renowned auteurs are screened just as they would have been decades ago.

In an ever-adapting theater with almost a century’s worth of screenings under its belt, what better “Big Screen Debut” to watch than that of Joel and Ethan Coen (a.k.a. the Coen Brothers)? From “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski” to “No Country for Old Men,” “Bridge of Spies,” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” the Coen Brothers have reinvented themselves again and again while still staying true to their roots — in this case, “Blood Simple.”

Equal parts love letter and lampoon, the Coen Brothers’ first feature film, “Blood Simple,” follows Ray (John Getz), a well-liked bartender working for a gruff and inhospitable owner named Julian (Dan Hedaya). After Ray runs away with Julian’s wife Abby (Frances McDormand), Julian hires doofus detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to inspect the case. From there, utter mayhem ensues.

Murphy’s Law states, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” “Blood Simple” is no exception, especially since its wacky cast of characters have dizzying ulterior motives, last-minute moral compasses, and semi-regular lives requiring careful preservation. All this being said, the story unravels like a game of Plinko gone haywire; the disc is liable to bounce any which way, and the final destination is a crapshoot. Add to this the Coen Brothers’ deft and witty craftsmanship, and every moment feels like a climax that outdoes the last.

And that is only to describe the love letter portion of the film. What makes “Blood Simple” stand apart from the rest of the pack is its comedy. The cast of characters are bumbling, oafish, and almost always doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. In the Coolidge, almost no moment went by without a wry chuckle or uproarious guffaw.

And if the characters are the beating heart of the movie’s comedy, the absurdist situations these characters are plopped into are none other than the brains. Whether it is detective Visser being mistaken for a drug dealer by a stoner teenager or Abby encountering a squatter while scoping out her new apartment, any situation is sure to be comedically milked for all its worth by the Coens.

Despite its shoestring budget, “Blood Simple” seems to always find a way to combine comedy and film noir without feeling overly hokey. For example, one of the movie’s funniest yet simplest gags comes in the form of a dead end road, which character after character unknowingly confronts. In a movie chock-full of strongman archetypes, the results of these confrontations are across the board hilarious.

Even at its most intense, “Blood Simple” never flouts the awkward and unexpected situations that everyday life invariably throws at characters. Indeed, it embraces these moments and lampoons the unrealistic protagonists characterized by actors like Humphrey Bogart and other such paragons of machismo in the hard-boiled crime thrillers of the Golden Age of Hollywood (for Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” would never drive down a road only to find that it unexpectedly ends).

However, “Blood Simple” also has a profound reverence for these very films — showing up distinctly in its lighting, cinematography, and penchant for gut-wrenching tension. Characters are almost always bathed in half-obscured chiaroscuro lighting or presented in deranged low-angle closeups. And when this is not the case, beautiful match cuts or inventive time lapses or fear-inducing pans are similarly employed to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. While comedy lulls the audience into a false sense of security, a sudden jump scare or severe violence rips that security away like a hospital grade band-aid.

Yet, some residue remains from that band-aid, and this can at times take the moviegoer out of the experience. Comedy, absurdity, and clever subversion often push realism to the sidelines — which can make the story feel as much a caricature as the characters themselves. When it comes to the life-altering, brash, and violent decisions made by these characters, however, it can feel as if the Coens are wedging puzzle pieces where they do not always belong to craft a predetermined picture. Thankfully, though, this picture winds up being laugh-out-loud hilarious and extraordinarily tense, more than making up for the occasional out-of-place piece.

Many filmmakers would be happy to call “Blood Simple” their best movie. But the Coens are no ordinary filmmakers. In fact, if the Coens’ oeuvre were a three-course meal, “Blood Simple” would be the appetizer, “Fargo” the main dish, and “The Big Lebowski” the dessert. Everything else — the cherry on top.

The Coolidge is not much different. Its ongoing renovation means big things for a theater that has already seen numerous reinventions. Who could have ever guessed a humble Unitarian church would one day become the dominant filmhouse of Boston? Even if the appetizer and main dish were served decades ago, the desserts and cherries show no signs of letting up.

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