As this film opens, an unseen narrator addresses us and a highway that could only exist in America about how things are done in a very faraway place, Russia. In Russia, we are told, everyone "pulls for one another," doubtless one of the kindest euphemisms for communism and one its founders would surely endorse (at the time, Russia was merely the largest socialist republic within an enormous union that stretched – well, I think you know the rest). Such magnanimity is not to be found, however, in a certain, mighty state in America's south. "I don't care if you're the Pope of Rome, the President of the United States, or Man of the Year" – and the incongruity of this triptych will be explained shortly – "in Texas, you're on your own." A reliable friend or two can help mitigate the horrible isolation that such a mantra will inevitably beget; but there are no friends, reliable or otherwise, willing to assist Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya).
Julian owns a bar named after his favorite person, himself. We may pardon this vanity when we consider how often bars and restaurants adopt their proprietors' names, if only to inject a modicum of familiarity and personableness into everyday commerce, but Julian's behavior is otherwise inexcusable. His wife Abby (Frances McDormand, in her screen debut), not his first spouse given their twenty-year age difference and a comment by another character, does not love Mr. Marty for a number of reasons that will become painfully clear. But the most immediate is that Julian's interests only involve money and all the little perks that running a successful nightlife establishment might bestow upon its namesake. It also does not aid Julian's cause that one of his bartenders, Ray (John Getz), is a strong, silent type, and a perfect foil to his older, neurotic, and far less comely employer. In a very early scene, therefore, we hear two voices where we cannot see faces, only a dark, rainy windshield through which everything is established: an extramarital affair, the backdoor man being the cuckold's employee; the gift Abby receives on her first wedding anniversary; the suggestion that the husband might be deranged; Ray's refrain of "I ain't a marriage counselor," and Ray's assurance that he does indeed "like" Abby (fighting words from such a strong, silent type). The adulterers pull into a convenient motel on the way to Houston and re-shatter Abby's wedding vows, only to be awakened the next morning by a phone call from the very man whose trust they are betraying, and their worst-kept secret becomes a public dilemma.
The publisher is a man called Loren Visser (a masterful M. Emmet Walsh), who not only directs Julian to the correct roadside hotel, he also supplies pictures of the bedmates in their half-naked glory. From his unusual accent and lighter inscribed "Man of the Year" (one wonders whether this was a competitive election), it is clear that Loren, a private detective with no qualms about what his profession may entail, is the narrator of our opening scene. Julian takes the ocular proof of his long-held suspicions as he seems to take every twist that life produces, that is, with scarcely concealed rage (the gumshoe assures him the news isn't all bad: "You thought he was colored. You're always assuming the worst"). But when the Man of the Year seeks payment for what he deems a fine night's work, Julian is hesitant to take any further steps until, in accordance with his temperament (an unsubtle reference to this figure suggests that Mr. Marty may have been born Mr. Markaris), he has properly chewed on the problem. It is a credit to the filmmakers that we sympathize with a lowlife like Julian Marty; it is an even greater accomplishment that we come to think like him. Throwaway phrases ("marriage counselor," "I haven't done anything funny," "Having a good time?") acquire a hideous double meaning, the very kernels of paranoia and derangement, and the effect extends past our cuckold. When Julian implies his spouse has made a habit of such indiscretions, the charge punctures Ray's pride and, for just a second, distorts his features. How curious that male adulterers are so egotistical in their almost uniform conviction that they are the first sidesteps a married woman has taken (an adulteress usually assumes she is one of many). Photographs in the childless Marty homestead recur to the lightweight pistol that Julian gave his wife a year to the day after they were married and Abby's words in that opening scene ("I should leave or use it on him"), and we know that no reconciliation is possible. Unlike other stories in which adultery is an aberration, a mistake, a bump in the road, here things cannot end well. So when Julian finally finds Loren, he gets into his passenger seat with the assurance of someone who has gotten into that passenger seat a hundred times. And he offers its owner ten thousand Texan dollars to rid the world of yet another adulterous couple.
What happens next is perfectly logical and perfectly insane, or, I should say, it is logic pursued down a path that no reasonable man would ever tread. I cannot admire the Coens' movies in general because they build either on pure atmosphere (impossible in a serious film unless you stick to noir) or over-the-top irony (both very modern and very useless). With Blood Simple, however, a studied masterpiece, they remain firmly in the first category. Rarely has guilt seemed so visceral; rarer still are the reactions of the perpetrators as human and convincing as in this triangle of love and hate. This has much to do with the acting: McDormand is convincing as not a dumb girl, just one with very straightforward interests; Hedaya plays the perfect villain without being evil, only consistently repulsive; Getz looks permanently disgusted with himself, with his adultery, and possibly with other acts; and Walsh is simply marvelous, stealing every scene with his nuances of expression. When he first presents the motel photos, he is so anxious for approval of his work you can almost see his lips moving with the words he wants to hear; when offered the blood bounty, we see fear and greed and fear of greed alternate in one sweaty stare ("I'm supposed to do a murder," he looks out the window. "No, two murders," and we witness the whole awesome range of emotions). The repeated use of the dialectical definition of simple to mean 'stupid,' or 'mentally deficient,' draws us back to our title (although the title is ostensibly culled from a line in this novel). How is Loren supposed to trust Julian, obviously a man of boundless self-interest, not to squeal (or as he phrases it, "not to go simple on" him)? In Russia, if we recall Loren's prefatory dialogue, "they make only fifty cents a day," and the detective stares out the window as if realizing that in that cold and distant land he would never be faced with such moral or financial dilemmas. Or perhaps any dilemmas at all.