MGM // 1984 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // September 15th, 2011
Abby (Frances McDormand, Fargo) wants to run off with her new lover Ray (Jon Getz, The Fly), leaving husband Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya, Commando) far behind. Enraged, Marty hires seedy investigator Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh, Blade Runner) to kill the couple and dispose of the bodies. The plan looks simple enough, but when blood is involved, nothing is simple.
Blood Simple (Blu-ray) upgrades the Coen Brothers' first feature.
The thing that catches your attention is how much the Coens' first movie has in common with their more recent movies. Their fascination with genre in general and noir in particular has been expressed in other movies, from The Big Lebowski to The Man Who Wasn't There (a seriously underrated movie, btw), but we see their first experimentations here. The movie is almost postmodern in that the main characters more or less decide what kind of movie archetype they're going to be, and the choices determine the outcome. Ray casts himself in a noir through his (mistaken) conclusion that Abby is a femme fatale. He accepts the role of the sap, and thus accepts the traditional fate of the sap (Spoiler: not really; Ray doesn't make it to the end credits). The horror genre is unexpectedly incorporated, no doubt a result of the Coens' work with Sam Raimi on Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. The transition is a bit jarring, but it somehow manages to work. Abby sees herself as the heroine in a slasher film, and accordingly, she overcomes long odds to survive. Visser's rueful laughter at the end reflects his own realization that he isn't in the film he thought he was. (I focused on genre studies in grad school so this kind of stuff really gets my inner geek on.) It's a fun game, almost as though each character is in their own "Choose your adventure book," to the point where it's almost an in-joke between the Coens and the audience, the hapless characters being the only ones not understanding the joke. However, that same structure prevents any strong identification with the characters, and that diminishes the emotional impact of the piece. The acting is exceptional from all four leads, but it's not good enough to hide the fact that we're watching character types, not actual characters, and that's what keeps the movie from achieving true greatness.
Just as the Coens are learning how to write, they're also learning how to edit and direct. In several key scenes they hold a moment far longer than you would imagine possible, to see just how far they can crank up the tension -- and at times, they hold the moment just a beat too long. At the same time, their shots are impeccably framed.
The Coens edit their films under the combined credit of "Roderick Jaymes." They also co-direct, but because the Directors Guild of America frowns on shared directorial credit, Joel took the directing credit and Ethan the producing credit. It wasn't until 2004's The Ladykillers the DGA allowed them to share directing credit, which is why they both took home three Oscars for No Country for Old Men -- Best Director, Best Picture (as producers), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
This disc has the 2001 Director's Cut. Unusual for director cuts, this version is a few minutes shorter than the original. In addition, this edition restores the prominent use of The Four Tops' "The Same Old Song," which was replaced by Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer" on the VHS release due to a rights issue (Yes, the song The Monkees made famous; an intriguing extra would have been to include the option to swap out the songs, just to see how differently the movie played with the alternate music). The MPEG-4 AVC encoded video -- let's just say that it looks like it was shot on a shoestring budget ($1.5 million) over twenty-five years ago. Little film damage remains, but the grain is apparent and there's a lot of muddiness, particularly in exteriors. The DTS-HD 2.0 is clear with good frequency response. The extras include a trailer and the faux commentary from the 2001 DVD release, in which "Kenneth Loring" provides a lot of bizarre information, some of which might even be true. In fact, Loring is an actor reading a script provided by the Coens. Caveat audiens.
Blood Simple is an interesting movie whose appeal is likely limited to Coen Brothers fans and film students. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated R