Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmett Walsh
Director:  Joel Coen
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  96 Minutes
Release Date:  September 18, 2001

"I got a job for you."

"Well, if the pay's right, and it's legal, I'll do it."

"It's not exactly legal."

"Well...if the pay's right, I'll do it."

Film ****

Blood Simple is a picture made by people who love movies for people who love movies.  It was the first feature effort by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, and if it's not the best independent film ever made, it certainly belongs on a very short list. 

Though the brothers would go on to bigger and more expensive productions...some great, like Fargo, some not so great, like The Big Lebowski...but for my money, Blood Simple remains their crowning achievement.  Apart from Citizen Kane, I've never seen a debut project radiate such enthusiasm from every frame about what was being created.  The brothers were experimental, creative, and above all, confident.  Money or no money, they created a masterpiece.

The pacing of the film is deliberate, but perfect, as the story unwinds like a crumpled plastic wrap slowly relaxing.  It starts familiarly enough:  a bar employee, Ray (Getz) is having an affair with his bosses' wife, Abby (McDormand).  They are in love, and of course, the husband Marty (Hedaya) is none to happy about it.  He hires a sleazy private investigator, Visser (Walsh) to confirm his suspicions.  Angered at the discovery, Marty makes the call that will alter all characters' destinies and shape the outcome of the story:  he hires Visser to kill both Ray and Abby.

A recognizable start, right?  And that's as far as I'm willing to go in plot description, because there are surprises and twists galore from that point on.  Most of the structure of the film works because we know things the characters don't know.  They are often faced with clues that we understand, but that they either can't piece together or draw the wrong conclusion from.  The web they are tangled in begins as simple deceit, but gets stickier with poor communication between them.  One priceless scene shows Ray and Abby having a conversation where neither one understands what the other is getting at...it turns out to be crucial.

This is a dark and sinister slice of film noir set against a Texas background.  The passions are bigger than life all around, and sometimes, the mistakes are, too.  The title of the film refers to a condition that occurs right after someone commits a murder...the heightened, fragile state of mind in which the killer usually makes his fatal mistake.  There is rarely such a thing as a perfect crime, and Blood Simple is filled with the imperfect kind...the kind that might have worked if not for one critical error.

The Coen Brothers, along with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, have created a visual playground with this movie.  Using carefully constructed shots and plenty of advanced planning with storyboards, the camerawork becomes an integral part of the narrative.  Shot after shot exposits, defines characters, and creates real suspense.  Images are repeated, like those of ceiling fans photographed in an almost fetishistic way.   Sounds are equally important:  notice how a conversation between Ray and Marty near the beginning is punctuated by the exaggerated pop of a bug zapper, or the unexpected arrival of a rolled up newspaper, which I don't think has even been used to such devilish perfection before.

Image after image in the picture are unforgettable, from the opening credits showing Ray and Abby driving down a stormy road at night, or the patterns created by headlights on a motel room wall, or how bullets penetrating a black, dark barrier leave holes with shafts of light pouring through.  Each of these both serves the narrative and exists outside of it...they're a clear testament to the love of the art of filmmaking. 

But the picture is a work of genius because it combines a fluid visual style with a wicked storyline.  Co-written by the Coens, this is a screenplay for the ages.  Things go wrong and more wrong...people find themselves committing acts they never would have dreamed themselves capable of, and when they do, it's usually for the wrong reason.

Overall, the film just reflects that all-too-rare quality of a production made by creative minds in their prime without any outside interference or influence.  Much like Kane decades earlier, Blood Simple carries a distinctive authorial stamp of artists who knew what they wanted and made their picture exactly that way.  The Coen Brothers have gone on to an impressive and lucrative career, but to watch their first feature again is to see two blossoming creators taking on the world, and smiling every step of the way. 

Video ****

Wow!  Throw away any other home video version of Blood Simple you own...this DVD is definitive.  One of the best looking transfers for a picture from the 80s, this restored "director's cut" version boasts incredible coloring, sharp detail, and most importantly, a sense of image integrity regardless of light level.  Some of the most important sequences take place in near darkness, which could have proved disastrous with a grainy or distorted transfer.  Here, they are just as beautifully rendered as lighter scenes.  Splashes of color often come in unusual forms, like the exhaust smoke from a tail pipe that lights up red in the glow of a car's brake lights, set against a black night backdrop.  These shots are perfectly captured on this disc, with no compression artifacts and no color bleedings.  A superior effort all the way!

Audio ***

The most distinctive aspect of the surround track is the low end dynamic range...in other words, it's not created by how loud the picture gets, but by how soft it gets.  Rhythms are created by soft sounds like the whum-whum-whum of the ceiling fans, or the distant sound of truck brakes.  Which isn't to say the track doesn't come alive with a startling punch from time to time...it certainly does.  The track is cleanly rendered throughout, with clear dialogue, but not much use (if any at all) of the rear stage, though I never really missed it.

Features ***

The disc starts off with a nice commentary track...no, not by the Brothers Coen, but by Kenneth Loring of Forever Young Films, the company responsible for the restoration of the picture.  He talks about the movie from a fan's appreciation point of view, and it's a good listen.  There is also the original theatrical trailer (a good one), talent files, and production notes.  Not counted as a feature, but could be considered as such, is the new introduction to the "director's cut", which is a hoot...it talks about "digital swabbing" and "ultra-ultra sound".


If you love movies, you'll love Blood Simple.  If you love DVD, you'll love the quality job Universal did in bringing this important independent classic to disc.  Highly recommended.