This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

What Does This Movie Mean? Ancient Greece in 1980’s Texas: The Coens’ “Blood Simple”

MV5BOWQwZTFhNTYtN2I5Ny00MDVlLTkwMDgtMzBhZGU5NTFlOTMzL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTk1NTMyNzM@._V1_SY500_CR0,0,354,500_AL_Lets begin by dispelling a common misconception among the movie’s following:  Julian Marty is not Greek — at least not literally.  He merely references Greece in conversation parallel to how Loren Visser references Russia.  Thus, the subtext of the movie immediately sets up this juxtaposition:  Greece, the land of civilization, versus Russia, the land of bears.  But then, the Coens immediately complicate it by assigning each symbol the other’s qualities:  Greece is where “they cut off the head of the messenger” if he brings bad news, and Russia is  an ordered society where everyone pulls for everyone else (“that’s the theory, anyway”, as Visser qualifies it).  The line between civilization and nature, order and chaos, refinement and barbarity, reason and impulse, can never be presumed — and nowhere is this more true than in a watering hole.

Some day, when I have more time, I may make a list of all the references to Ancient Greece in Coen Brothers’ movies.  To some degree, their affinity for the subject goes without saying, given that they made O Brother Where Art Though? — not a literal retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, but certainly an atmospheric one, designed to give modern Western audiences a feel for how people in Ancient Greece would have perceived the original Odyssey, by setting theirs in Depression-era American South and packing it full of folk and historical references. But before OBWAT, there was Blood Simple, the Coens’ first feature film and, fittingly, an homage to Dionysus.

Of all the ancient Greek deities, Dionysus has always been my favorite — primarily because he is, by far, the scariest.  Zeus, the nominal king god, may roar and throw his thunderbolts, but he is Olympus’ version of a high school jock; he doesn’t have Dionysus’ brooding menace, simmering underneath a cheerful and attractive exterior.  There is a certain dark duality to Dionysus.  He is, first and foremost, the god of winemaking; the god of merriment and good times, who was often depicted extending a cup or a bunch of grapes. But this image of jolly, laid-back hospitality is a deceptive one.  The myth of Dionysus’ life is one of endless horror, and his gift to humanity — that of alcohol — is a force for great harm as well as great good.  After all, what frees a man from his inhibitions, what makes him forget his troubles, also has the power to deprive him of the capacity for reason, make him paranoid, turn his whole world into a trap, a maze he cannot escape in his inebriated state. Dionysus is the god of intoxication; the line that separates man from beast is his exclusive domain, and he has the power to punish people with violent madness.

The worship of Dionysus was the most ancient of Greek pagan cults, so ancient, its origins are lost in the dawn of mankind itself, with roots so deep in prehistory, it embodied even for the Greeks — long before Darwin and the theory of evolution — the memory that humans too, were once beasts; that this primordial animality still lurked within them, and could be awakened by the gift — or the curse — of the god.  Ancient priestesses of Dionysus honored this fearsome deity by donning animal skins, working themselves into a frenzy and then roaming the wilderness, tearing apart small animals (and an occasional child) and feasting on raw flesh. Meanwhile, ancient festivals of Dionysus were, basically, The Purge (which led the Roman Senate to outlaw Bacchanalia almost half a millennium before Constantine). Thus, theater itself — which would eventually give us movies — an integral part of Dionysian worship in Ancient Greece, almost certainly arose in an attempt to reign in this violent Neolithic cult, to ritualize its rites, replacing literal carnage with simulated and controlled one, and confining it to the stage.

The themes of Dionysian madness and animality run the whole length of the movie. Consider:

      • Marty owns a bar.

      • There is a bookend on Marty’s desk that’s in the shape of an ox’s head.  At one point, Visser extinguishes his cigarette on it.  It’s a fantastic detail, because not only is it a reference to animality, but it recalls burnt offerings to gods, practiced by ancient cultures.  Here, Marty’s desk is the “altar”, and Visser’s cigarette is the sacrificial fire.
      • The private detective’s last name is Visser, which sounds a lot like “viscera”.  He drives a Volswagen Beetle.  When Marty makes that comment about what they do to messengers in Greece, he responds: “Let me know when you want to cut off my head.  I can always crawl around without it.” This not only likens Visser to a reptile, but evokes the image of the mythical Hydra — a monster that cannot be killed; for every head it loses, three new ones grow.
      • Visser carries a lighter inscribed “Elks Man Of The Year”.  It’s actually in the script that the lighter must have this engraving.  The camera makes certain that the viewer catches it, which, of course, indicates its importance.  Visser is thus both an “elk” and a man; the lighter symbolizes that very boundary between man and animal that Dionysus rules over.  Visser’s careless loss of the lighter — which, naturally, derails his elegant plan — signals the character’s entrance into the realm of madness, his loss of control of the situation.
      • Marty once punished Abby by forcing her to see a psychiatrist.
      • The one and only time we are in Marty’s house, the camera follows his wolflike hound, momentarily giving us the dog’s point of view and showing us the powerful, measured movements of the animal.
      • When Marty attacks Abby in Ray’s house, he drags her out, hissing, “Let’s do this outside, in nature”.
      • “Isn’t that … wild?” says Visser when he shows Marty the doll with light-up nipples hanging off his rearview mirror.
      • After hiring Visser to kill Abby and Ray, Marty spends a few days hiding out on the Gulf coast.  He comes back with some fish on a string.  In Greek mythology, Dionysis has to spend some time hiding in an underwater cave.
      • Like Dionysus, Marty is “reborn” after being ostensibly murdered.  (But, because “it’s the same old song, but with a different meaning” — a song we hear three times — his rebirth produces a weak, shambling horror that is quickly dispatched again.)
      • The  movie also notably focuses on Abby’s compact mirror (and on mirrors in general).  In a dream sequence, Marty tosses the compact mirror to Abby with the words “You left your weapon behind”.  In one sense, this may be a reference to mirrors being a symbol of women’s power to use their beauty to mislead and entrap men.  In the context of the film’s other symbolism, however, this is more a reference to the disorienting effect of mirrors placed in a maze, likely a reference to Michel Foucauld famous writing about “the theater of Dionysian castration”, especially in connection with sex.

This is not to say Marty represents Dionysus himself, but as the owner of a bar, he is somewhat of a Dionysian priest, and the bar is his temple.  Fittingly, the movie is bookended by the bar at the beginning, and Abby’s apartment at the end, the latter having an architectural resemblance to a temple (and where, when we first see it, the landlady’s drunk brother-in-law is found sleeping).

It is also, notably, Marty who punishes Ray with madness, by poisoning him with his comments about Abby.  From that point on, Ray is incapable of thinking rationally.  He becomes paranoid and misinterprets everything around him, including Abby’s words as Marty predicted them.  Later, it is Marty’s apparition that does the same to Abby, planting the seeds of paranoia in her mind.  In general, the plot is fueled by intertwining, ongoing misunderstandings — the characters’ inability to see things for what they really are, as well as their inability to convey information to each other. (“We don’t seem to be communicating,” Marty remarks to a bar patron he’s hitting on.)

I’d like to end by mentioning the remarkable interplay between light and darkness in this movie.  Darkness represents safety; light, mortal danger. For characters cursed with madness, not seeing at all (and not being seen) is better than attempting to figure out a reality that’s been placed beyond their understanding by a vengeful deity.


More from “What Does This Movie Mean?”

The Godfather’s Oranges

Coens’ “Fargo”

Belinsky’s “The Aura”

“Fargo” (TV) Season 2 UFO’s

Kids’ movie rant: 1990 “Beauty and the Beast”

Kids’ movie rant: “Cars 2”


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4 thoughts on “What Does This Movie Mean? Ancient Greece in 1980’s Texas: The Coens’ “Blood Simple”

  1. Pingback: What Does This Movie Mean? Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985) | This Ruthless World

  2. Pingback: What Does This Movie Mean? The Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” (1996) | This Ruthless World

  3. Pingback: What Does This Movie Mean? — The Godfather’s Oranges | This Ruthless World

  4. Pingback: What Does this Movie Mean? “A Serious Man” (2009) | This Ruthless World

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