“Down here – you’re on your own.”
The voiceover that opens Blood Simple sets the stage not only for a cinematic world, but an existential one. In the first words uttered in a Coen brothers film, “that poet of a sleaze” M. Emmet Walsh drowsily describes a landscape of unmitigated and terrifying individual freedom, indifferent, and dissociated from any discernible hierarchical foothold:
The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year – something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help – watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone puts for everyone else – that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas…and down here…you’re on your own.
Walsh’s folksy drawl accompanies a sprawling and desolate montage of south-western Texas; a hazy slideshow of seemingly endless oil fields, highways, and horizons. It’s a terrain described in the screenplay as “broad, bare, and lifeless,” and later, frequently, “deserted.” In total, three entries of the brothers’ canon are set in Texas, making it their most frequented location after Los Angeles and New York: Blood Simple takes place in and around Austin; No Country for Old Men on the Texas/Mexico border; and in True Grit, scenes set in Arkansas and Oklahoma were filmed in Granger, Austin, and Blanco – which the brothers will be the first to admit is “a conscious cheat.”
For the Coens, there is an intense and necessary reciprocity between narrative and place; an inextricable bond between storytelling and the “point of view of a region.” It’s difficult to imagine The Big Lebowski divorced from Los Angeles, or Fargo set anywhere but, well, Fargo. In this way, the Texas of the Coen brothers acts as a cinematic space that compliments the stories being told within it – operating not only as a physical landscape, but also a psychological and ethical one.
There is an inescapable sense of vulnerability to the Coens’ Texas: a vast, dry boundlessness that simultaneously promises unparalleled freedom and uncompromising exposure. In Blood Simple, you can feel it when Ray goes to flee the scene of the crime and his car stalls; in No County, when Llewelyn discovers the ultimo hombre and a briefcase with 2 million dollars beneath a lone tree; in True Grit, when Rooster is forced to carry the snake-bitten Mattie on foot across a bleak grassland with no sanctuary, let alone shrub, in sight.
Paradoxically, this foreboding openness is accentuated by periodic and vivid claustrophobia. While most of No Country is crammed into stuffy trailers, cars, and cheap motels, these prove to be ineffectual foxholes – lackluster defenses against an unforgiving, capricious world, and more literally, against the walking abattoir that is Anton Chigurh. Likewise, in Blood Simple, even while burying Marty alive, it feels as though Ray is being engulfed by the impenetrable expanse of the night’s sky. It’s an interplay between confinement and exposure that Blood Simple emphasizes through voyeurism; a stifling, and well-founded fear of being watched that complements the dread of entombment.
A paralyzing sense of isolation dominates the Coens’ Texas, undermining any attempts at the individualistic heroism conventional to the territory. Characters in Blood Simple fundamentally and fatally misunderstand each other – Marty thinks Abby and Ray are dead, Abby thinks Marty shot Ray, Ray thinks Abby shot Marty…and so on. Any possibility for interpersonal connection is drowned out, thwarted, or otherwise lost in translation. While True Grit’s ensemble fares better, their brief cooperation is routinely challenged by squabbles which feel particularly petty in contrast to the severe majesty of the terrain (a veritable unglorified “ugly West”). In No Country, despite being inextricably linked, Llewelyn, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell and Chigurh are so alienated they never even appear on screen together. This is appropriate considering No Country’s inaugural moments, a voiceover and south-western landscape sequence that immediately recalls Blood Simple’s. Where Blood Simple is “deserted,” and all the eerier for it, No Country’s opening vistas are essentially devoid of human influence. Consequently, No Country’s terrain presents itself as emphatically desolate, impervious, and undomesticated. A deal has gone wrong and embroiled the wrong folks, and it feels like the landscape is complicit.
In “Notes on Film Noir,” Paul Schrader remarks that “when an environment is given an equal or greater weight than the actor, it, of course, creates a fatalistic, hopeless mood.” Characters act freely – Ray chooses to bury Marty alive, Llewelyn chooses to endanger Carla Jean, Mattie chooses to shoot Chaney (twice)— but, as film scholar Richard Gaughran notes, these are actions that take place against an immense, uncaring, and frequently hostile backdrop. As the banker from True Grit says: “I do not entertain hypotheticals, the world as it is, is vexing enough.” Particularly in the case of Blood Simple and No Country, rather than harrowing determinism, the absence of moral absolutes unspools a comedy of errors – a clumsy uncertainty that invites, rather than necessitates consequences that are absurd, violent, or as is often the case with the Coens, somewhere in between.
Echoing Walsh’s monologue, True Grit argues that while “you must pay for everything in this world,” it’s unclear if certain things, like vengeance, are worth it. While Mattie succeeds in avenging her father’s death, we’re given no indication whether or not satiating this obsession brought her any satisfaction. This brings about a sort of ethical catch-22: the cinematic landscape of the Coens’ southwest affords a complete freedom of action, and yet, as Walsh notes in Blood Simple’s opening lines, such actions carry no essential moral value—rather, any and all punishment precipitates from the action itself. While Abby and Ray have incriminating evidence, they have no idea what it means – and so ironically, Visser is undone by his own insecurities about tying up loose ends. It’s a framework which, like the landscape itself, doesn’t lend itself to being parsed and ultimately inspires bewilderment. My favorite part of Blood Simple is when Abby shoots Visser, assuredly muttering: “I’m not afraid of you Marty.” Visser, bleeding out on the bathroom floor, erupts in laughter, and, in an inspired piece of intertextuality, directly quotes Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation: “Well ma’am if I see him I’ll sure give him the message!” It’s a baffled surrender that anticipates Marge Gunderson’s “I just don’t understand it,” Burn After Reading’s “what did we learn?” and more relevantly, Sheriff Bell’s “I don’t know what to make of that. I sure don’t.”
Late in No Country, Ellis diagnoses Sheriff Bell’s despondency: “What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country is hard on people.” It’s hard because, for all his belief in free will, Llewelyn’s tenacious self-reliance wasn’t enough; it’s hard because Bell has no philosophical model with which to understand an embodiment of perdition like Anton Chigurh. In No Country’s opening voiceover, as Sheriff Bell confesses his nostalgia for an ill-remembered paradise and his fear of a present that threatens to put his soul at risk, the prairie dissolves before our eyes from night, to dawn, to day. It is, almost mystically, indifferent: no matter what ill-advised, graceless actions its hapless inhabitants take, it remains, vast, callous, and open.