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Blood Simple. Blu-ray Review

Blood Simple. (1984) movie poster Blood Simple.

Theatrical Release: January 18, 1985 / Running Time: 96 Minutes (Director's Cut) / Rating: R

Director: Joel Coen / Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen / Songs List

Cast: John Getz (Ray), Frances McDormand (Abby), Dan Hedaya (Julian Marty), M. Emmet Walsh (Private Detective Loren Visser), Samm-Art Williams (Meurice), Deborah Neumann (Debra), Raquel Gavia (Landlady), Van Brooks (Man from Lubbock), Holly Hunter (voice of Helene Trend - uncredited)

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Two of the most respected and recognized filmmakers working today, Joel and Ethan Coen made their major debut over twenty-five years ago with Blood Simple. There was little apprenticeship preceding this production, which was shot in 1983 and played a few noteworthy film festivals (Toronto, New York, Sundance) before receiving general theatrical release in January 1985. After graduating from NYU's film program, older brother Joel, credited as director and co-writer here, assistant-edited two small movies, the more notable being Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead.
Princeton alum Ethan, producer and co-writer, was altogether inexperienced. That renders it all the more remarkable that not only were the siblings able to make something genuinely good and lasting, but they were able to do it their way and the way they still do, editing as "Roderick Jaynes", getting Carter Burwell to score, and having the rare privilege of final cut.

Blood Simple. is set in Texas and centers on a love triangle. Actually, we don't see too much love flowing from any of the three points. Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), the owner of a small, isolated bar, suspects his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) of cheating on him. Those suspicions are confirmed when a jocular private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) smilingly supplies photographs of her in bed with Marty's bartender Ray (John Getz). Ray seems to hold genuine feelings for Abby, who mostly just seems to fear her jealous, enraged husband. The cowboy-hatted private eye, who provides the film's opening narration, is merely an amused, removed observer of the situation.

Then, Marty asks the detective to be more than that, offering him $10,000 to kill both his wife and her lover and dispose of their bodies. Though it violates his lax moral code, Visser doesn't hesitate before accepting the job. This is where things get complicated, with lies, doctored photos, and one of the four parties found shot, bloodied, and unresponsive. The film revels in watching the characters react to a bad situation, each of them making it worse with misjudgment, blunders, and loose ends. The parties attempt to cover their tracks, avoid suspicion, stay alive, and finish what's been started.

Dan Hedaya plays enraged husband and bar owner Julian Marty, whose actions set forth the plot of "Blood Simple." Sitting on his car hood in Texas farmland, a bloodied Ray (John Getz) wonders if he's done the right thing.

Though not used in the marketing of the film, the period is a definite part of the title. As far as sentences go, Blood Simple. is a short one. That's appropriate because the movie makes a statement and does so with a lean, taut, and minimalist design. There is not an ounce of flab here. The dialogue is terse and never wasted. There are five characters of importance and hardly anyone else appears or speaks. Very little goes into giving these characters normalcy, nothing more than some photos of the married couple in happier times. That the film is so very gripping in spite of that is a testament to just how well-crafted it is.

This is marvelous technically and in a way that maximizes the drama and mystery. The deliberate pacing creates tremendous suspense. There are many potent, silent, unusual compositions. Transitions are creative and artistic. Iconicity emerges again and again in images like a shot man sitting motionless with one leg uncomfortably on a desk, the guilt-inspiring flashed headlights of a passing country highway driver, and beams of light shining through the wall-piercing bullet holes of a perfectly staged climax.

The Coens' signature qualities -- oddness and dark comedy -- are largely absent here. Instead, we just get a very good hard-boiled noir, buoyed by the brothers' innate mastery of the medium. The performances are great. Both the basic story and the twists that heighten it are terrifically compelling. But it is the execution that elevates Blood Simple. from what might have been an above-average movie into a rich, wondrous experience that uncovers expressive powers of film rarely tapped.

In her film debut, Academy Award winner and Coen wife Frances McDormand displays fear above all other emotions. In one of the most memorable roles in his over 40-year and counting film career, M. Emmet Walsh plays a private detective and former man of the year, whom sleuthing reveals is named Loren Visser.

Besides the Coens, Blood Simple. marks the debuts of Burwell and McDormand, who married Joel after shooting wrapped. That 27-year and counting union has given us much enjoyable collaboration, including McDormand's Oscar-winning lead turn in Fargo. Blood also includes an uncredited but unmistakable vocal cameo by Holly Hunter.
McDormand's roommate at the time, Hunter would have to turn down the role of Abby but would serve as leading lady on the Coens' next directorial outing, the 1987 comedy Raising Arizona. Blood also supplied the first theatrical credit for Barry Sonnenfeld, who handled cinematography on this and the Coen brothers' next two movies. From there, he segued into a notable directing career, although most of his work, which include both Addams Family movies and all three Men in Black installments (the third is due next Memorial Day), could not be further removed from this one's earthy, timeless sensibilities.

It is remarkable that, despite limited commercial success early on, Joel and Ethan Coen managed to sustain productive careers with full creative control. Their talent has served them extremely well, attracting major stars to work for them at cut rates and supply both prestige and marketability. The brothers are currently riding an all-time high on the all-around success of their esteemed blockbuster True Grit. How many other writers/directors of 1985 releases are still regularly working, let alone with the kind of clout the brothers presently enjoy? The list includes Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, both of whom have upcoming movies with some potential to recreate the combined critical and commercial support of Grit. Beyond them, only Tim Burton, who also made his debut in 1985, and Ron Howard come close.

Blood Simple. won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Joel went onto share Best Director honors with Scorsese (for After Hours) at the premiere Independent Spirit Awards in 1986. Bigger awards didn't come the brothers' way until Fargo, but in some ways the triumphs of No Country for Old Men, which won Adapted Screenplay, Directing, and Best Picture Oscars, felt like validation of the Coens' debut. After all, in the brothers' eclectic filmography, No Country most closely resembles Blood Simple., with its serious tone, 1980s Texas setting, and separate perspective design. Aside from Raimi-directed Crimewave and the anthology Paris, Je T'Aime, Blood Simple. might be the Coens' least well-known film, but it deserves to be recognized for much more than simply being their debut.

Now, the film can be recognized on Blu-ray Disc from MGM and 20th Century Fox, who released it last week, having inherited it sometime before 2007 from Universal who in turn added it to their USA Films (now Focus Features) from defunct distributor Circle Films. In addition to debuting on its own, Blood Simple. is also available in a four-movie Coen Brothers Blu-ray collection along with Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo.

Though not identified as such, Blu-ray presents Blood Simple. exclusively in its 1998 director's cut, which restores a critical, repeated soundtrack selection from the original theatrical release previously replaced for home video and actually trims a number of other scenes.

Watch a clip from Blood Simple:

Blood Simple. Blu-ray cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
2.0 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: August 30, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $16.99
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available in {From the Minds of the} Coen Brothers 4-Blu-ray Collection ($69.98 SRP), on DVD ($14.98 SRP) and in The Coen Brothers 5-DVD Collection ($49.98 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Blood Simple. appears in 1.85:1 widescreen and it looks delightful. True to the original design, the picture is dark and lightly grainy. When you consider that it was shot nearly thirty years ago and as a first-timer's low-budget independent film, the clean and clear visuals are nothing short of stunning. The rare errant white speck turns up and focus is a little soft on infrequent brief shots, but those are the only things keeping this Blu-ray from visual perfection, a major accomplishment to be sure. The 2.0 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is less satisfying. The dialogue is a bit muffled, with the stereo having been remixed from modest monaural recordings. Still, everything remains audible and crisp enough, with English SDH subtitles easily summoned to clarify any uncertainties.

The Coen Brothers have a laugh at film studies with this pompous introduction by Mortimer Young (George Ives) and an audio commentary from his "artistic director." The theatrical trailer for "Blood Simple" ends with this tagline pun. This colorful, artistic Blu-ray menu montage serves the film well.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The small gathering of extras begins with an unadvertised introduction automatically preceding the film (1:35, HD). This was filmed for the movie's director's cut restoration, which received limited theatrical release around the world in 2000. Mortimer Young (actually actor George Ives), the fake namesake of the fictitious Forever Young Film Preservation, avuncularly welcomes you to the movie.
Though most of the facts he cites are fake, his comment about the movie being edited ("boring parts taken out") aren't entirely untrue, as covered above. Ordinarily, I believe original theatrical cuts should always be included, but in this case, done entirely by the Coens with no reasons but their own, it feels appropriate and the revisions appear to be minor. Still, it would have been nice to get the longer cut as an option or at least the footage in a deleted scenes section (which, as usual, the Coens do not provide). The brothers were amused enough by this introduction to bring Ives back as Mortimer Young for the DVD release of The Big Lebowski, or maybe it was the other way around.

In a similar vein is an audio commentary by "Kenneth Loring" (actually actor Jim Piddock), "artistic director" of Forever Young Films. Talking over the film with a British accent and an academic tone, he reveals that the opening shot inside a moving car was filmed inside a parked car upside down and in reverse. That sets the proper tone. Everything he shares (e.g. actors mouth their lines so as to get a clean recording of a jukebox song, phone calls are conducted with actors speaking into a Dixie cup just off-camera) is misinformation and that is the joke. It's amusing in a dry "Mystery Science Theater 3000" way, as Loring refers to characters as "pleasant fellow" and "unpleasant character", mentions lost footage and an excised Bulgarian flavor, and discusses how Rosemary Clooney was considered for the "massive, bullying woman" film noir archetype for this movie. It might even be more amusing skipping around to maximize randomness, landing perhaps on when he prattles on about Forever Young's failed attempt to acquire the Merchant Ivory library. It is kind of weird company on one of the brothers' most serious films, but it's different and fun.

The extras conclude with Blood Simple.'s original redband theatrical trailer (1:41, HD), which uses a Hitchcock quote and stylishly edits together quick, exciting shots. A teaser trailer was reportedly made before the film was shot with Bruce Campbell depicting Dan Hedaya's part. That sounds like it would be fascinating to see, but it's never joined the film on home video.

Universal's 2001 DVD included production notes and cast/filmmaker bios and credits on disc. While these aren't restored, at least the trailer and tongue-in-cheek commentary were, as they appeared to be missing from MGM's 2008 DVD release.

Menus aren't always afforded MGM's catalogue titles, but this disc boasts a colorful and atmospheric one. In it, a piano excerpt of Burwell's score accompanies tinted moving clips from the film and falling blood drops. The disc allows you both to add bookmarks on the film and to resume feature playback.

Texas bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires private eye Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to do a job for him in the Coen Brothers' debut movie, "Blood Simple."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Blood Simple. is an arresting thriller and a movie that holds up as one of the Coens' best to date. This is one of the most polished debuts of any major filmmaker and any fans of the brothers' work ought to see where they began.

The film does deserve some serious retrospection and this Blu-ray release is a missed opportunity for both that and to provide the original theatrical cut. Still, while the disc doesn't offer anything new, it restores a worthwhile couple of extras and delivers a stellar hi-def presentation of the film. For that and more so for the film itself, this is recommended.

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Related Reviews:
The Coen Brothers: No Country for Old Men (3-Disc CE) The Big Lebowski (Blu-ray Book) A Serious Man True Grit
Blu-rays: The Terminator (Blu-ray Book) The Killing (Criterion Collection) Kiss Me Deadly (Criterion Collection) Dead Man
John Getz: Zodiac (Director's Cut) | Dan Hedaya: The Usual Suspects (Blu-ray Book) A Night at the Roxbury
Frances McDormand: Primal Fear | M. Emmet Walsh: Home Improvement: The Complete Fourth Season Back to School

Blood Simple. Songs List: The Four Tops - "It's the Same Old Song", Toots and the Maytals - "Louie Louie", Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra - "The Lady in Red", "Rogaciano", Joan Black - "He'll Have to Go", Johnny Ventura y su Combo - "El Sueno", Maria Luisa Buchino and her Llameros - "Anahi", Patsy Cline - "Sweet Dreams"

Download Carter Burwell's Blood Simple. Theme from Amazon MP3

Buy the Raising Arizona/Blood Simple Soundtrack CD

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Reviewed September 4, 2011.



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