Joel and Ethan Coen’s career-long darkly comic road trip through misfit America began with this razor-sharp, hard-boiled neonoir set somewhere in Texas, where a sleazy bar owner sets off a torrent of violence with one murderous thought. Actor M. Emmet Walsh looms over the proceedings as a slippery private eye with a yellow suit, a cowboy hat, and no moral compass, and Frances McDormand’s cunning debut performance set her on the road to stardom. The tight scripting and inventive style that have marked the Coens’ work for decades are all here in their first film, in which cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld abandons the black-and-white chiaroscuro of classic noir for neon signs and jukebox colors that combine with Carter Burwell’s haunting score to lurid and thrilling effect. Blending elements from pulp fiction and low-budget horror flicks, Blood Simplereinvented the film noir for a new generation, marking the arrival of a filmmaking ensemble that would transform the American independent cinema scene.
'Blood Simple' is the debut film from Joel and Ethan Coen, igniting a unique sibling collaboration that's lasted for three decades and has produced some of the most fascinating and beloved films for cinephiles everywhere. Other than being an instant critical success, the crime thriller demonstrated and prefigured the duo's distinctive filmmaking style with a penchant for bleak, dark comedy set in a noirish mise en scène. This movie, as in all the others that soon followed, reveals their love for film in general and for working within strict genre structures without hindering their ability to entertain. They inform their first feature greatly with subtle nuance from various elements and inspirations that serve as homage while at the same time coming across as surprisingly fresh and inspiring.
The plot is fairly simple, and perhaps even standard, which can be easily argued as a weak point or a clear fault within the script. As it centers on an adulterous love affair, the tale slowly expands into murder, a double cross and an attempt to cover up the crime. For this to work and play out as it does, the film includes a good deal of misinformation and misunderstanding on the part of our two main characters, played by Frances McDormand and John Getz. In fact, the Coen brothers open with the couple already in the middle of a private conversation that doesn't seem entirely comprehensible. Neither comes out and plainly states what they mean or what they want from one another, and this only worsens when they suspect each other of murder but fail to say it outright.
But 'Blood Simple' is not about people doing the right thing. It's a film about average, everyday people making bad — even stupid — decisions under some extraordinarily violent circumstances. We as the viewing audience, and to some degree even as witnesses, are not privy to their inner thoughts though we can gather the reasons behind their actions through their reactions. It's part of what makes them so intriguing and interesting to watch. They respond according to their own logic given the situation they seem themselves caught in, revealing a darker side to their personality which even they were perhaps unaware of. What matters is that these characters have their reasons, are confident of them and act upon them, even at the risk of their own safety and sanity.
The film is also more concerned with experimenting in technique and camerawork, an exercise on the limitations of convention in order to deliver something seemingly inventive and new. While celebrating classic film noir and playing with overt Hitchcockian themes, the sibling duo carefully toys with aspects of horror, creating an apprehensive environment which strings viewers along with bated breath. There are several scenes which can be rightfully pointed out to demonstrate this, but only one in particular has lingered as remarkably haunting. Starting with the discovery of the body and ending with an innocent phone call the next morning, the burial sequence is nearly thirty brilliant minutes without dialogue, yet it's astonishingly suspenseful and highly expressive.
With cinematography by a then-unknown Barry Sonnenfeld, 'Blood Simple' is a beautifully crafted exercise in neo-noir, marking the startlingly and decidedly impressive debut of the Coen brothers. It's a stylishly atmospheric crime thriller in which the sibling duo shares their love and knowledge of film, revealing that much can be gained from convention so long as it's done right. Even the plot comes with a kind of familiarity to it, where the way in which the story unfolds is none too surprising. But the dark, moody photography and excellent camerawork creates a rather elegantly lyrical pace in the narrative which is incredibly engaging with immersive, nail-biting suspense. It's a must watch for any Coen fan.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of Joel & Ethan Coen's 'Blood Simple' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #834) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a foldout pamphlet with pictures from the film on one side. On the back, owners will find an insightful essay entitled "Down Here, You're on Your Own" by author and film critic Nathaniel Rich. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options on the left and full-motion clips playing in the background.
With the participation and approval of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and filmmakers Joel & Ethan Coen, the crime thriller creeps its way to Blu-ray with a beautiful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that bests Fox's 2011 release. It's not by a huge margin and doesn't give us a night and day difference, but it's enough to deliver a very visible improvement and earn a well-deserved higher ranking.
According to the accompanying pamphlet, the original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 4K resolution to create this brand new transfer. And the results are splendid. Of course, as was seen in its predecessor, some scenes appear softer than others with less than pleasing resolution shifts, but as before, that can all be chalked up to age, film stock and the photography style at the time. Otherwise, the source is in superb condition, showing outstanding definition from beginning to end. Distinct fine lines in the furniture and walls are sharply detailed, no matter how dark or poorly lit the scene may be. Most surprising is seeing individual pores and the tiniest wrinkle in the faces, and we can plainly make out the texture in the various clothing.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, pitch-perfect contrast, with slightly brighter and cleaner whites throughout, maintains terrific clarity and visibility of background information with daylight exterior sequences looking better than ever. Interestingly, the video shows improved black levels with a tad darker, fuller shadows, which sometimes are deliberately meant to obscure certain parts of the frame, adding to the story's creepy, suspenseful atmosphere. Colors also benefit from the new digital transfer, showing vivid, energetic primaries and bold secondary hues.
Comparatively speaking, the folks at Criterion Collection provide Coen fans with the best possible presentation of the brothers' excellent debut film.
Sadly, the same can't be said of the new DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which has been upgraded to 5.1 surround sound. Why the decision to remix the original stereo soundtrack with an additional three discrete channels was made, we will probably never know. But frankly, I'm of the opinion that it was done in poor taste because new sounds and recordings of Foley effects had to be made in order to make this new codec. And they are distractingly obvious and quite pronounced — loud and phony enough to sorely disappoint this audiophile.
It's great that Criterion brought in Skip Lievsay to supervise the making of this track. He's been working with the Coen Brothers as sound editor from the beginning, before proving himself a talented, award-nominated sound mixer and designer. He's earned three Oscar nominations for his sound work on 'No Country for Old Men,' 'True Grit' and 'Inside Llewyn Davis,' but he'll probably be best remembered for his amazing Atmos design in 'Gravity,' for which he won an Academy Award. Needless to say, with that sort of talent behind the making of this lossless mix, I am genuinely surprised by the poor results.
The first release, which arrived in lossless stereo, as it was meant to be, revealed some limitations in the original recording. The mid-range is pretty limited and not very dynamic with very little movement in the higher frequencies. In spite of that, imaging exhibits excellent clarity and precision across the entire soundstage. In fact, the new track maintains a front-heavy presentation without any notable activity in the side speakers. Overall, it's fairly wide and engaging, but only the beautifully memorable score of Carter Burwell appears to benefit from the upgrade, delivering terrific separation and warm fidelity between each piano key.
The notably distracting issues keeping this high-rez mix from a higher score are the annoyingly fake sounds of cars and semi-trailer trucks in the background, which is completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the story. Meanwhile, gunshots are incredibly loud while sounding synthetic and flat. And although low bass provides a bit of weight and presence to the action, it also feels muddled, artificial and ultimately brings too much attention to itself. Worst of all, vocals are often unclear and unintelligible. They are not necessarily drowned out by other noises in the background, as much as the conversations and voices are simply coming in a lower volume, making it difficult to clearly understand what some characters are saying.
In the end and overall, this new surround mix delivers an unnatural and distractingly manufactured soundfield, which is greatly disappointing to this audio purist.
'Blood Simple' is a beautifully crafted crime thriller, expressively celebrating the mystery and suspense of classic film noir. Starring Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, and John Getz, the 1984 movie also marks the impressive debut of Joel and Ethan Coen, a sibling team that has produced an amazing collection of films. The Blu-ray arrives courtesy of The Criterion Collection with a beautiful picture quality but a surprisingly disappointing audio presentation that's been upgrade to surround sound without giving purists the option for the original stereo track. Nevertheless, with an attractive selection of brand-new bonus material, the overall package comes recommended with some mild hesitation.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.