Last night a friend I had a chat about how to identify and separate the effect of screenplay from direction. Her opinion was that its not possible to separate them because they are too dependent, that is, bad direction destroys good screenplay and the converse. For me, that situation is possible but not systemic. Screenplay is about dialogue. Direction is about creating and executing an artistic vision which leverages the dialogue to convey a compelling story – related but not necessarily dependent.
I gave two examples. Of course, as always, opinions fly free.
Good direction, bad screenplay – Tron Legacy. Sorry if you liked the dialogue in this film but I thought it was horrendous. The direction on the other hand, particularly the visual production style and soundtrack from Daft Punk, were amazing. I liked the film but mostly for its direction.
Good screenplay, bad direction – Natural Born Killers. To me, the dialogue in this film was very cleverly written to tell a compelling, albeit grim, story. The execution, however, distorted the story. The delivery of the dialogue seemed affected, overly-dramatic, just shy of spoof. The production style seemed to lack cohesion, as if it had occurred on the spur of the moment. I still enjoyed the film but mostly for its screenplay.
All of this a drawn-out preamble to this film, Blood Simple, which, to me, had both good screenplay and good direction, which were still easy to identify separately.
Blood Simple is the story of a Texas love triangle gone impossibly wrong. Husband suspects wife is cheating and contracts a PI to uncover the truth. That plan however goes horribly of the rails with the Coen Brother’s characteristic left-field twists coming in quick succession. Adultery, murder, coverups, extortion and double-dealing ensue.
The dialogue is clever, as it is in most Coen Brothers films, for its simplicity, relatability and believable manner in which characters respond to the unbelievable unfolding of events. The direction is likewise excellent. Choices in sound are noteworthy; the constant hum of a ceiling fan, the constant chirp of crickets which are both applicable to the setting and serve as a baseline audio focus to let the visuals shine. Lighting is likewise appropriate for the setting, plenty of shadow and neon cast to convey a distorted, tawdry tale. A grizzly, story-changing altercation on an isolated freeway established a theme in this film which would be reused in a later Coen film, Fargo.
Acting is mostly good from the entire cast, however the stand out for me was a young Frances McDormand, who nails the portrayal of a woman caught in the headlights of her own misguided decisions. Interestingly, McDormand would meet and marry Joel Coen during the making of this film, which was his first big directing project and her first big acting project. McDormand would appear in many more Coen Brother films, including Fargo, winning her first Oscar.
If you’re a fan of the Coen Brothers but missed this, their 1984 directorial debut, or you just like good crime dramas which will engage you from scene one and keep you guessing until the end, Blood Simple is a good watch.