The first of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers filmography and the season of Lent.
As we begin this filmic journey through Lent, taking each Coen Brothers film in order of their release, Blood Simple could not be a better place to start. Their first film catapulted the Coens to instant critical acclaim, if not yet to a wide audience, by showcasing glimpses of what would become the Coens’ signature style, tone, and themes. For this reason, Blood Simple functions as the perfect entry point for an exploration of how their filmmaking intersects with Lent.
As the sayings go, every action has its consequences, every evil its just desert, what goes around comes around or, my favorite version, “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” The characters in Blood Simple all find themselves in a diabolical game of dominoes, where one early inciting incident, a love affair, triggers the fate of everyone involved. As each of three men–a husband, a lover, and a hitman–all try to scheme, double-cross, and cover-up their own way out of the mess, they just reshuffle the dominoes that will ultimately fall in the same inevitable way. This absurd fatalism has come to define so much of the Coens’ work, as their characters bumble and fail their way to the bottom.
As with so many great thrillers, the characters’ limitations determine their fate. What they know and don’t know in crucial moments thwarts their attempts to control an increasingly uncontrollable series of events. In this way it is not just their brokenness or bungled attempts at control that fail them, but also the simple reality that the machinations of “fate” exceed their grasp. However big and proud these men all feel early in the film, they are undone by their ignorance of a key detail, such that their reactivity for self-preservation ensures their destruction.
The season of Lent is primarily a season of confession, beginning with Ash Wednesday. We acknowledge that we came from dust and that to dust we will return. It’s an acknowledgement of our brokenness and our limitations, as the sign of the cross is made in ash on our foreheads. This symbolic gesture is a humiliation, a penance, as we march toward our destruction, as we commemorate Jesus’ own march toward his crucifixion. Like the characters in Blood Simple, the dominoes are in place, and they are about ready to fall. In Lent, we do not yet know, nor could we even anticipate, the newness of Resurrection. Yet we are offered still the opportunity to repent – to wear our brokenness and limitations on our foreheads, hoping that it might just interrupt the path our brokenness is leading us on. That perhaps to acknowledge it all, confront our limitations, to stop playing stupid games and surrender, might yet save us.