Blood Simple Review

‘Blood Simple’ is a brilliant, fascinating piece of work, quite jaw-droppingly assured for a first feature and so utterly mesmerising from start to finish that when watching it for the umpteenth time last night, I still found myself completely taken up with the plot and characters. It’s a measure of the quality of the writing and the Coens’ almost unnatural sophistication as film-makers that – but for a few questionable fashion choices and the occasional Carpenterish synthesized burble on the soundtrack – there’s virtually nothing here to indicate that the film is now 20 years old.

Texas. Thirtyish bartender Ray (Getz) begins an affair with Abby (McDormand), the wife of his boss, Marty (Hedaya). When Marty discovers their relationship, thanks to private detective Loren Visser (Walsh), he employs Visser to kill both Ray and Abby. However, Visser has plans of his own…

The plot of ‘Blood Simple’ is not quite this straightforward, but actually it’s not much more complicated either. The absolute clarity of the narrative is one of the film’s many strengths and the various twists and turns we’re led through never come at the expense of forward momentum. This is a film where execution is everything and the Coens’ ability to create scenes of almost unbearable tension, with an apparent effortlessness that puts directors of much greater age and experience to shame, is to the fore. Combining an extremely extensive knowledge of cinema history with a genuinely innovative mise-en-scene, constant visual wit and a penchant for curious non-sequiturs, the Coens were able to make a film that contained all the elements of every great noir thriller in movie history – passion, intrigue, murder, betrayal – but refashioned into something fresh. The dialogue gleams, the actors shine and the camerawork dazzles – even now ‘Blood Simple’ is a kind of template for independent would-be movie makers, like ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ or this year’s ‘The Return’.

‘Blood Simple’ also established some of the key personnel who were to form the Coens’ creative team over the ensuing years: sound designer Skip Lievsay and composer Carter Burwell have continued to work on every Coen Bros film, playing a huge part in what defines the ‘Coen’ atmosphere. Needless to say, their work here is immaculate; Burwell’s haunting piano refrain lodges immovably in the brain (all the more memorable thanks to the scarcity of its use) and Lievsay’s brilliant sound design adds layers of depth to the tension: witness the tell-tale two-note chime of Marty’s computer and the panting of the dog. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld would work on the next two Coen films before jumping ship to turn director, being replaced by Roger Deakins. In an interview (unfortunately not included on this disk) Sonnenfeld revealed that ‘Blood Simple’ was the first movie he’d shot, making his work here all the more remarkable. It’s a beautiful movie to watch, a truly modern noir, with sweeping, desolate landscapes worthy of Andrew Wyeth. In fact there’s painterly compositions throughout, in the shots of Ray sleeping after his ordeal and in the wonderful sequence where Marty and Loren discuss the killing in the front of Walsh’s VW Bug.

Acting is uniformly excellent. If ‘Blood Simple’ has a weakness it’s that its characters do behave in an unusual fashion in the second half, and it’s to the credit of all concerned that their actions come across as being those of confused, vulnerable humans acting under pressure, rather than actors acting under a deadline. Frances McDormand – in her screen debut – and John Getz are affecting as the adulterous lovers whose affair ignites the bloodshed. The real delight, however, is in the sleazy back-and-forth between Dan Hedaya’s vengeful Marty and M. Emmet Walsh’s gleefully corrupt PI Loren Visser, whose opening narration sets the tone of the film: “What I know about is Texas, and down here... you're on your own.” Marty is exactly the kind of greasy, bullying coward who would pay someone else to kill his wife, and Visser is exactly the kind of man who would do it. Ursine, filthy and avuncular, Visser could be the grandfather of Bryant from ‘Blade Runner’ the kind of cop “… who called black men niggers.” In both cases, Walsh conveys – with minimum effort – a man whose outward affability masks guile, ambition and utter ruthlessness. It’s little wonder that US film critic Roger Ebert founded the ‘Stanton-Walsh’ rule, stating that any movie featuring either Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton was worth a look (although, having seen the sheer number of mediocre movies Walsh has made, I’d have to replace him with Gene Hackman). Marty’s jealousy and bitterness are almost theatrical in their intensity and Hedaya’s pinched face, his jaw clenched like a lid over his rage, acts like a surly magnet in every scene he’s in. Their scenes together are superb, particularly the conversation in the front of Visser’s beaten up VW, when Marty, lacking the courage to actually say what he wants, can only shame-facedly nod when Visser bluntly says: “You want me to kill ‘em?”

Considering that this is 20 years old and a low-budget first feature, I’m very impressed by the picture quality on this DVD. The image is clear, stable and remarkably free of dirt and scratches. While some of the bar scenes look a trifle red and soft, this is generally a terrific looking DVD.

No real fireworks here, you get a DD 2.0 soundtrack and the score, dialogue and sound effects are all clear and well balanced. A 5.1 mix of the film's soundtrack has been undertaken for the R2 French and German releases, however this was not an option on the review disk we were sent.

Special Features
The only real special feature is a real oddity, a full length commentary track made by one Ken Loring, Artistic Director at 'Forever Young Film Restoration', who takes us through what he calls the 'Aficionado Edition' of 'Blood Simple: Forever Young'. His commentary claims to be based on his own 'technical notes' and is based on 'extensive interviews with the film-makers', revealing such secrets as the animatronic dog used during production! This is actually an extremely funny piss-take, scripted by the Coens and read by a British actor. The Coens have long resisted providing a commentary track to any of their DVDs so this, in typically perverse fashion, is their contribution to the canon, but by the time you get to the revelation that Rosemary Clooney was originally cast in the M. Emmett Walsh role, you won't care.

In an era that was to prove big on hype and short on genuine innovation, the Coens – along with David Lynch, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh – were to be the most exciting new development in American cinema in the 80s. ‘Blood Simple’ is their immaculate debut and this DVD – with its quirky faux-commentary – is not as good as the film it represents (no 5.1 soundtrack, almost no extras) but it's many, many times better than the horrific 4:3 non-anamorphic UK 'theatrical release' we've had to put up with. It’s available as part of the Universal ‘Coen Brothers’ 4-film set.

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Last updated: 23/06/2018 01:12:10

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