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Blood Simple: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // September 20, 2016
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 14, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Note: Film Review Republished from Coverage of MGM's 2011 Blu-ray

Joel and Ethan Coen tend to make movies that are timeless. I'm not really referring to staying power in modern cinema, though that too applies, but in the physical texture of their work -- whether it's award-garnering drama or grin-inducing ironic comedy (or, at times, a mix of both). Even if they bluntly profess a time or era in which a specific film takes place, the barefaced close-ups, surgically-used music, and sheer energy buzzing frame-to-frame captures an almost otherworldly essence that, in a way, feels as current as the day the raw footage was shot. This quality can be traced all the way back to Blood Simple, the brothers' twist-heavy Texas neo-noir and first feature film. Cowboy boots in neon signs and the loud calculating of a green-screened computer melt into the backdrop, becoming eerily-magnetic accoutrements that do nothing but add resonant visual flare to this taut, superlatively-made thriller.

As you dig into what the Coens have concocted, you'll quickly realize that they have a firm grasp on film noir and are disinterested in mucking with its flow; none of the characters can be trusted, they've all got their fruit-bruises, money's thrown around, murders are plotted, and backstabbing abound. At the center of the story, one tough to summarize but easy to follow and grounded in familiar footing for genre hounds, a bartender (John Getz) has been sleeping with his jealous boss' wife, Abby (Frances McDormand) -- a woman known to mingle with other men around town. The bar owner (Dan Hedaya) isn't happy about it, leading him to throw both his weight and cash around to "fix" the situation. Revealing any more might cripple the enjoyment in watching the film unravel; needless to say it takes turn after turn from there, throwing in the involvement of a stocky, dangerous private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh).

Blood Simple's straightforwardness allows the extent of the Coen Brothers' talent to speak for itself, and something surprising happens as a result: their attentiveness to setting and tempo moves in front of the lean storytelling, allowing their attuned perspective to bolster the anticipation in seeing what they're going to throw at us next. That's not to say that the script they've penned isn't involved, or uninvolving; the dialogue maintains a stylish, serrated attitude with copious amounts of gravity rooted in deceit and suspicion, while the rhythm of twists in the bars, houses, and overlooking bluffs keeps the viewer satisfyingly on their toes. But it's also pared down to the essentials, never squandering lines or tossing in overtly bizarre flourishes (even fish flopped on a desk are pertinent). This is succinct, innovative construction with a purpose, where details not only matter, but directly accentuate the tone.

That purpose is to generate a slow boil of tension -- along with splashes of pitch-black, blink-and-you'll-miss-it humor and unquenchable guilt -- to which the Coen Brothers sustain at a high-caliber until the credits roll. Lots of deaths occur in the film, as if the title wasn't indicative of that, and none of it is smooth, calculated, or even certain; it's all by happenstance, which seems to be tearing these people down in some form of deadpan karmic balancing act. Layer after layer drapes atop the actions of the cheating couple, backstab after backstab, and the audience is the only one privy to the extent of the convoluted scheming and knowledge of the events. A continuous play on audience awareness will become a concurrent theme in the brothers' work, strengthening both tension and humor by playing with our knowledge of the film's developments, but it's at its more pure and incisively cunning here.

A degree of polished artfulness is also at-play that simply doesn't befit a first-time effort; the subtle thumps of windshield wipers created a hypnotic musical preface in the film's opening moments, while the fluttering of ceiling fans and the stark, steady-handed focus on slight facial mannerisms reveals a vein of fierce bravery in the atmosphere the Coens shape. Lots of clever, methodical visual imagery slips into the film by way of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld's eye, growing dirtier yet remaining staunchly steady-handed while the story's tension mounts. There's a slow, nerve-clenching crawl over mounds of dirt as we witness a "Texas burial" later on, followed by the misty image the next morning of a car's erratic tracks along an unplanned path to the burial site, and it double-back to the film's overall nature: a crazed trip with a destination, but a path that's simply not predictable. And the chillingly beautiful climax isn't to be forgotten, with smoky bullet holes pouring light through their exit points.

Reliable performances from the quartet of primary actors dictate a lot of the film's unerring intensity. A young Frances McDormand, in her first on-screen appearance, unassuming communicates Abby's mounting moral discomfort against John Getz' everyman gruffness, up until the film's draining climax -- which places hefty demands on McDormand's wide-eyed, addled self. With her back against a dark wall and the whites of her eyes bathed in moonlight, arguably the film's apex, she nails the right mix of fear and industriousness. The wild eyes and frazzled rigidity that Dan Hedaya brings to the bar owner, Marty, inadvertently adds a few layers of history and complexity to the character, where his riled-up jealousy makes us wonder about a time and place where he and Abby were linked. But if you don't watch out, the quirky and capricious awfulness of M. Emmet Walsh's private detective, Loren Visser, might sneak up and steal the show.

As the Coen Brothers navigate the deliberate ninety-minute thrust in Blood Simple, their craftsmanship holds onto that timeless property mentioned early on. Bathed in '80s-brand neon light, with high-top shoes shuffling across our vision, period-appropriate cars and everything else, they're restrained and given inclusive life by the lens' lyrical viewpoint and the brothers' capacity to hold attention with raw, stirring energy. Really, much of Blood Simple's agelessness stems from the sheer filmmaking precision propelling it, where there's next-to-nothing out of place or missing in a reinvigoration of film noir's melancholy, meditative styling; the look, attitude, and flow of its often bleakly farcical corkscrews still impresses with inextinguishable thrills and innovation by way of clever genre recycling. And it proves to still be a relevant piece of cinema, an impressive feat considering many directors' early film stand as little more than relics showing how far they've come. Blood Simple shows where they already were: fully-armed with their perspective at the ready.

The Blu-ray:

The Criterion Collection have drawn Blood Simple into their roster as Spine #834, arriving with a cleverly obscured cover design that features the film's strong shadows and moody lighting. A promo portrait of Frances McDormand and Dan Hedaya adorns the interior artwork of the label's standard clear-case design, while a slick shot of a pistol trading hands atop the Booklet. Inside, information about the transfer and film credits can be found, as well as an essay entitled "Down Here, You're On Your Own", by Nathaniel Rich. Alas, this isn't a foldout poster booklet. Note that the only cut available here, as was the case for MGM's 2011 Blu-ray (review here), is the 96-minute cut.

Video and Audio:

Look, it's possible to point out a noticeable print imperfection here and a slightly too-dark black level there, but The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray transfer of Blood Simple is absolutely sublime, burying the previous MGM disc. Scanned at 4K from an original 35mm negative, the 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC presentation can only really be described in a stream of accolades. The neon lights in Marty's bar are punchy and perfectly saturated, with the afterglow beautifully spreading out across the chairs, countertops, and on Marty's face. Minor details in fish scales, the stitch pattern on a nightshirt, brick walls, bullets, flip lighters, and wood tables are immaculate. Skin tones constantly loom in the sublime space between warm and appropriately pink, while the image's depth and razor-sharp clarity makes each close-up a beauty. Both sunsets and cool, misty mornings alike sport beautifully solid fluctuations in color shading. The contrast levels offer deep, rich black levels that only rarely grow a tad heavy, yet never close out any details. Film grain is appropriately dense at all times, and there's very, very little instance of dust, blips, or other distortion. It's a stunner that trumps whatever very minor issues might be found with it, plain and simple.

It would be understandable for someone to get so wrapped up in the story and the visuals that they might not pay that close of attention to the sounds of Blood Simple, but there's a lot of clever substance to be found in the Coen Brothers' sonic accentuations. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which has been rejuvenated a bit by The Criterion Collection with their audio tools and supervised by sound editor Skip Lievsay, enlivens the atmosphere with strong high-end clarity and substantial lower-end responses, whether it's the beeping of a computer to the swiping of windshield wiper blades. Little elements, like the click of an unloaded gun and the slap of dead fish on a desk, showcase delicate precision and fine, natural separation in the front channels. Firmer effects, like the firing of a loaded gun and the rush of a semi on an empty road, reveal even more substantial and impressive engagement of the surround channels and lower-end response. Dialogue ranges from ever-so-slightly muffled due to the film's 30-year vintage to impressively clear in ways that make it sound like a fresh recording. And the music, whether it's the phenomenal score from Carter Burwell -- those piano key strokes! -- or the tunes playing on a jukebox, stays richly balanced and evenly presented.

Special Features:

The Criterion Collection have elected to leave off the audio commentary available on MGM's previous Blu-ray presentation, but what they've orchestrated with Shooting Blood Simple (1:10:29, 16x9 HD) fills whatever void would be left by its absence, if not trumping it. This is labeled as a "new conversation" with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and the Coens with accompanied Telestrator illustrations, but what the back-cover description doesn't really indicate is that this all goes down with almost the entirety of the film playing before them. With colored notations on the screen, the trio discuss lighting, film stock, that dolly shot on the bar, and lots of other anecdotes about the process of making their first feature. What's more, they're incredibly self-deprecating and honest about their missteps along the way, mostly in regards to lighting and color. The Telestrator markings can get a little gimmicky, but it also adds the desired interactivity in more complicated scenes that they want to discuss more in-depth. Terrific stuff.

For a more literal version of a "conversation", one only needs to look toward this interview with the Coens led by Dave Eggers (35:00, 16x9 HD), where the author and screenwriter probes the two storied directors about their experiences in getting the film made. Topics range from Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and financing, the practical reasons for staging the film in Texas, the literal meaning behind using a VW beetle in the film, Frances McDormand, the presence -- or lack thereof -- of social commentary in their movies, and the critical reception to Blood Simple. The Coens are great personalities to listen to, and this chat with them hits both deeper notes about the film's construction and stays absorbingly conversational and unpretentious.

Frankly, these two featurettes would've been plenty for the Blu-ray presentation, but the folks at Criterion aren't finished yet. They've also included two interviews with the actors. Frances McDormand (25:32,16x9 HD) discusses the uniqueness and bar-setting excellence of working with the Coens, while also bringing up her connection with Holly Hunter, referring to the Coens as a two-headed creative force, the complexities of finding the right wardrobe for her character, and how the Coens have shaped her life both professionally and personally. M. Emmet Walsh (16:33, 16x9 HD) elaborates on the role that was written for him and his cash-only stipulation for working on the film, but he starts by discussing how he broke into acting and became a bigger name. On top of that, we've got an interview featuring composer Carter Burwell and sound mixer Skip Lievsay called Blurred Lines (23:44, 16x9 HD), where they discuss their initial inspirations for film work, the unique sounds of the composition and the strong piano current, and the windshield wiper sequence.

And, of course, The Criterion Collection have included the original Theatrical Trailer (1:34, 16x9 HD) and a Rerelease Trailer (1:50, 16x9 HD) touting the new remaster, but they've also included the nifty Fund-Raising Trailer (2:08, 16x9 HD) that the Coen Brothers pieced together to garner interest in the project.

Final Thoughts:

Much like my feelings about the film itself, my concluding thoughts about Blood Simple remain the same as they were five years ago. Here they are: "Many directors' freshman efforts are often considered curiosities that merely show glimmers of their talent before their breakaway success. The Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, no matter how you cut it, still stands as one of their best. The Austin-bound neo-noir does indeed show the precursory qualities that'll come to hallmark their work -- dark comedy, punchy violence, and a sardonic edge -- yet it's also an incredibly fluid, gripping stretch of suspense on its own that grasps your attention, both thematically and aesthetically, and doesn't let go of it until the final, harrowing sequence. It's a sharply-made and wickedly satisfying thriller that holds up long after its first screening date."

Presenting Janus' 4K restoration, The Criterion Collection have presented Blood Simple in a fashion where its minuscule little flaws are vastly outweighed by the magnificence of its overall audiovisual prowess. Couple that with close to three hours of new bonus features -- including a pseudo-commentary and multiple newly-recorded interviews -- and you've got an easy entry into DVDTalk's Collector's Series.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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