Blood Simple

(1984) **** R
99 min. Circle Films. Director: Joel Coen. Cast: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh.

/content/films/4966/1.jpgThe Coen brothers have always evinced a film-brat creative energy, a mischevious love for cinema and an irreverent compulsion to rework it for their own ends, transform their favorite stories into unimstakeable Coen brothers joints. The world met the Coens' world with the release of their astonishingly assured debut, the 1984 neo-noir Blood Simple. Even the way I first saw the film—in a VHS release that compromised the film through a cropped "pan and scan" composition and the replacement of The Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song" with Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer"—Blood Simple enthralled with its creeping tension, deadpan black comedy, and confidently long silences, punctuated with successively more alarming jumps (insects meeting their demise in a bug zapper, a newspaper thudding into a door) on the way to a gonzo finale of precisely executed violence.

Now, the Criterion Collection has afforded the Coens another opportunity to revisit the film. A 1998 "Director's Cut" shaved off two and a half minutes and restored The Four Tops. The new Criterion Blu-ray and DVD issues use that cut as the basis for a new 4K scan that's also received a couple of digital scrubs (to remove distractions like a cable that shouldn't be in a shot). The Four Tops song offers typical Coen irony, duplicitous and writ in disappearing ink: "It's the same old song/But with a different meaning since you been gone." It is as it ever was and always shall be at the end of misguided or loveless relationships: communication breaks down, disgreement reigns, resentment festers, anger explodes. How many murders have been intimate crimes of passion? But even more to the point, it's the song that's the same: the lyrical narrative recounting of the age-old tangle created by a homicidally bad breakup between two untrustworthy individuals and whomever else is unfortunate enough to be caught in their web of self-deception.

So "the same old song" implicitly places Blood Simple into the tradition of film noirs, which favor three kinds of men (existentially resigned poker faces, raging ids, and hysterical raw nerves) and two kinds of women (innocents and femme fatales). Of course, the Coens "mix it up" with their story of cuckolded bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya); his estranged wife Abby (Frances McDormand); Abby's new man Ray (John Getz), an employee of Marty; and a vile "Private detective" (M. Emmet Walsh) hired by Marty to prove Abby and Ray's affair. The beauty of the plot—scripted by Joel and Ethan Coen, and directed by Joel—lies in the consistent misunderstandings and assumptions of the characters. Marty hiring the p.i. before Abby and Ray have embarked upon their affair (though not by much) could be viewed as the story's original sin. From there, twist upon twist upon twist emerges from the characters' utter cluelessness about each other's choices and actions. Blood will out, but the truth is another story.

The Coens, then, allow the audience to share in their deviant, gleeful schadenfreude as the characters ride headlong into the darkness. Nevertheless, whether due to a disciplined restraint or a minor deficit of total confidence, Blood Simple feels like the least smug of the brothers' films, which allows for genuine dread and a fuller appreciation of the film's ingenious steel-trap plotting (this is a story in which the same person is murdered on two separate occasions, by two different murderers). The film also qualifies as a neon-noir, in its at-times hell-lit cinematography (lensed by future director Barry Sonnenfeld, in his feature debut). Blood Simple has some infamous shots, including a playful tracking shot down a bar that lightly skips over a passed-out barfly, an adrenalized rip from buddy Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, and the climax's use of light streaming through gun holes. Like Sonnenfeld and many others in the credits, composer Carter Burwell here marks his first of many collaboration with the Coens with a terrific, insinuating piano-based score.

The leading performances are impeccable, particularly those of character actors extraordinaire Hedaya (allowed a scary stillness) and Walsh (sweatily embodying his "lord of the flies," a braying moral vacuum), who delivers both the film's classic opening voice-over ("Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That's the theory anyway. But what I know about is Texas. And down here, you're on your own") and the final line, which clamps the film shut like a bear trap. As for the film's title, traceable to Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest, it could well have applied to the brothers' later film Fargo (or, for that matter, their sophomore outing Raising Arizona): simpleness and crime have consistently fascinated the pair, who may as well be praying at the temple of Atë. Humans are suckers for sex and money, and the Coens preach a healthy respect for the randomness and chaos that ensues from our desires. The postman doesn't ring twice, warn the Coens; he sneaks in and out like a thief in the night.

Share/bookmark: Digg Facebook Fark Furl Google Bookmarks Newsvine Reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo! My Web Permalink Permalink

Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 9/20/2016

Distributor: The Criterion Collection

Criterion's special edition of Blood Simple will rankle purists, as it doesn't contain the original theatrical cut of the film. In every other respect, though, it's a terrific presentation of the film in its "Director's Cut," with a near-definitive set of bonus features. Persistent viewers of the film will note definite improvements, especially in detail and color (the neon is beautifully saturated), from the previous MGM/Fox hi-def Blu-ray release. Aside from a little trouble resolving Abby's cable-knit sweater in one shot, the new transfer struck from a 4K master is downright glorious in preserving a natural, filmic look (via grain retention) and an overall clean and stable image that will be downright revelatory for those who've only experienced the film on lesser home video formats. In Criterion's edition, the soundtrack expands from the previous release's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 to a sharp, subtly immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, supervised by original sound editor Skip Lievsay.

Bonus features kick off with "Shooting Blood Simple" (1:10:29, HD) which amounts to a nearly feature-length video commentary. Armed with a telestrator, Joel and Ethan Coen join cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld to wax nostalgic about the film's wacky financing and low-budget production, with some specific, humorous anecdotes. The focus largely remains on the visual choices, many of which the trio pooh-pooh (often with suggestions about how they'd film those moments differently now). They do retain a sense of humor about it all, and even enough perspective to recognize that perhaps what they see as weaknesses might lend the film unique qualities and youthful energy.

Four more new video pieces offer interviews with key players. A "Conversation with Dave Eggers" (35:00, HD) finds the author sitting with the Coens to chat about the film. "Carter Burwell and Skip Lievsay" (23:45, HD), the composer and sound editor, discuss working with the Coens throughout their career and particularly on Blood Simple. "Frances McDormand" (25:05, HD) sits for a great interview in which she discusses her younger self's technique and attitudes about the project, as well as how she won the role and what it meant to her career and her personal life (the inception of her relationship with future husband Joel Coen). "M. Emmet Walsh" (16:33, HD) also proves fascinating, in recounting his background as an actor and his personalized take on his horrid character as being a nice guy.

Rounding out the disc are three trailers: the legendary "Fund Raising Trailer" (2:08, HD), the "Original Theatrical Trailer" (1:34, HD) and the "Rerelease Trailer" (1:50, HD). A pamphlet included in the case provides film credits, images from the film, tech specs and an essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

Share this review:
Share/bookmark: Digg Facebook Fark Furl Google Bookmarks Newsvine Reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo! My Web Permalink Permalink
Sponsored Links