A blank, white screen opens the Coen Brothers’ film, Fargo, slowly to reveal a landscape as a car emerges from the distance – first only as an obscure interruption of this oversaturated image – and crosses the screen on a wind and snow blown road. This bleak expanse of the film’s location – Fargo, as the middle of nowhere – helps to articulate the emptiness that permeates the film and ties together several of its key elements. Oblivious to the consequences of his actions, the villain Jerry Lundergaard (William Macey) arranges to have his own wife kidnapped. To him, it seems, the kidnapping is merely a business strategy: a clever scheme to pilfer some money from his father-in-law and pay off his debts. He has no apparent appreciation of the traumatic violence entailed in the kidnapping – not only for his beloved, but also for their son. “It’s real sound,” he promises the kidnappers, “It’s all worked out.” While his crime certainly is eccentric, the blank, Pollyanna reassurance with which he disavows it is altogether consistent with the empty prattle that runs throughout the film and defines its social milieu. The characters speak with absurdly bright, Mid-western accents, using endless up-beat clichés, which seem utterly vapid in their corny, homespun enthusiasm: Aw, geez. You betcha! Don’t cha know? When it irrupts, the film’s violence too is brutally meaningless. With Jerry’s wife face down dead in the snow beside him, her kidnapper and killer stands silently beside a frozen lake, wearing his long-johns, boots, and a stupid looking hat, feeding his partner’s body parts into a wood-chipper. There’s no lesson to be learned, no catharsis. It’s not even tragic: it’s pathetic, ridiculous even.
Riddled with absences, Fargo is emblematic of the Coens’ work. Absence is so central to all – or at least many – of their films that one might say they are about nothing. The Big Lebowski features a Dude (Jeff Bridges) who does nothing. It revolves around a staged kidnapping – a crime that has not in fact taken place – and the ransom is paid to a spastic gang of nihilists with an empty suitcase. Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), the protagonist in The Hudsucker Proxy, is an innocent – an idiot really – who’s installed as the President of a major corporation in order to undermine the value of the company’s stock. Throughout the film, he draws empty circles – zeros – and enthusiastically proclaims, “You know, for the kids!” In The Man Who Wasn’t There, the eponymous protagonist, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thorton) is absent from his own life. He’s the shadow of a man – a “ghost,” as he describes himself – who remains virtually silent throughout most of the film. A Serious Man depicts a man beset by seemingly relentless calamities for no apparent reason. Burn After Reading tells the story of a conspiracy that develops around an utterly worthless computer disc. Intolerable Cruelty hinges on divorce proceedings that leave one spouse with absolutely nothing. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the psychopathic assassin in No Country for Old Men, uses a slaughterhouse air gun to blow holes in his victims’ skulls. And Barton Fink is a film that revolves around the absence of a film, or more specifically, the absence of a screenplay.
The figures of absence that permeate the Coens’ films are correlates of the irrationality that drives their characters, sustains their plots, and gives the slip in the slapstick of their black comedy. As New Yorker film critic David Denby notes, with specific regard to their 1985 breakthrough film, Blood Simple, “What interests the Coens is how foolishly people behave, and how little they understand of what they are doing.” (Denby, 2008; 74) In Blood Simple, they capture this sense of the irrational – and establish its continuing importance for the subsequent development of their oeuvre – in the central image from the film’s final sequence.[i] Abby (Frances MacDormand), the wife of a jealous man, and the private detective (M. Emmett Walsh) hired first to tail and then to kill her, shoot at each other through walls. The bullets punch holes in the sheet rock, projecting haphazard beams of light into otherwise dark rooms. They are firing blindly with little or no sense of where they are aiming – or, in Abby’s case, at whom she is trying to shoot. When she finally succeeds in hitting the private detective, Abby declares, “I’m not afraid of you, Marty,” referring to her husband, whom the private detective knows to be dead, and registering her distorted notion of what’s happening. As his blood drains from the hole in his gut, he erupts in a sinister laugh, not only ridiculing her, but also acknowledging his own confusion about what he thought Abby was plotting. His imminent death, he realizes, will be the result of a stupid misunderstanding. “If I see him” (presumably in Hell), he declares, “I’ll give him the message.”
Critic Hal Hinson traces the film’s title to its roots in in Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, arguing that, after killing someone, you go soft in the head – “blood simple.” He writes, “The sight of blood on [the characters’ hands] causes the world to warp and distort just as Hammett said it would, like the nightmare reflection in a fun-house mirror.” (Hinson, 2006; 3) While the film’s title undoubtedly was drawn from Hammett’s novel, however, the misunderstandings and misguided acts that it depicts precede any killing: they are its condition rather than its consequence. The Coens’ concept of what it means to be “blood simple” is thus perhaps better understood as perversely inverting the title of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Wise Blood.” Rather than an aberration, brought about by the fear and guilt of killing someone, in the Coens’ films, simplicity seems to be in our blood: a mindlessness that plagues the human condition, derailing our self-conscious motivations and distorting our understanding of one another and the world.
In this vein, the Coens’ characters consistently fail to act in their own self-interest. Their motivations lack clear objectives and frequently prove to be self-destructive. They consistently misunderstand one another and the implications of what even they themselves are doing. They do what they do for no good reason: for nothing. In Fargo, there’s no material basis for Jerry’s scheme. He and his family are well taken care of. He has everything he could ever want. The money he tries to bilk from his father-in-law already is in the family and destined to become his and his wife’s. Barton Fink’s (John Turturro) writer’s block is simply obsessional. He’s repeatedly told exactly what’s expected of him, but nevertheless insists that he doesn’t understand what the film studio wants him to write. Blood Simple revolves around the central characters’ various misunderstandings of the evidence left at a crime scene. Each of them acts on the basis of a fundamental misconception of what’s going on, what he’s doing, and what the others are after. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ed’s thoughts and actions are systematically misunderstood by those around him. He’s dismissed when he confesses to murdering his wife’s lover and executed for a murder that he didn’t commit. And his purported plan for self-improvement sets off a chain of events that result in his own execution and the destruction of everyone and everything close to him. Finally, in The Big Lebowski, the Dude’s rug gets pissed on because he’s mistaken for someone else with the same last name, and he gets caught up in drama of the kidnapping, that didn’t in fact take place, because he insists that the dirty, old, pissed-on rug, “really held the room together.”
So, how are we to understand this irrationality in the Coen Brother’s films? How does it give shape to both their form and their content? And what, for the Coens, does it mean to be “blood simple”?
 Following Hinson in this reading of Hammett’s title supports the thematic concerns that interest me in the Coen Brother’s movies. However, in the context of Red Harvest’s gang wars, Hammett originally uses the expression to mean something more like “killing without restraint.” The connection between the Coens’ film and Hammett’s original story, if any, would seem to like rather in the private detective’s surreptitious intervention, which provokes the gangs to turn on one another.
[i] In a 1987 interview with Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret for Postif, Joel in fact describes the scene as built around this image. “The image,” he says, determined the situation there, which was then elaborated to integrate into the context of the story.” (Ciment and Niogret, 2006; 33)