Plot twists are often just that . . . a narrative that's bent at all kinds of odd angles just to keep viewers guessing. In "Blood Simple," the Coen brothers' stylish 1983 film debut, the twists are all logical, deriving from character actions and assumptions (many of them mistaken). That's the beauty of this neo-noir crime drama/thriller. No matter how convoluted it gets, it all makes perfect sense . . . though it keeps you guessing at every turn, right up until the last, stylish minute. Put it this way: if you think you've seen one movie triangle, you've seen them all, you haven't seen "Blood Simple."
I won't say much about the plot except to outline the basic premise. A bar owner (Dan Dedaya, as Marty) learns his wife (Frances McDormand, as Abby) is having an affair with one of his bartenders (John Getz, as Ray). He has spidey senses, because while she's leaving Marty and he gives her a ride, they learn of each other's fondness and end up in a motel for the first time. As they writhe around, passing cars on the highway illuminate them in flickers that make what they're doing seem like something seen through a peep show lens. And they are being watched. A suspicious Marty had hired a sleezy P.I. (can a man wearing a yellow suit and cowboy hat be anything else, unless he's starring in a movie with a monkey named Curious George?) named Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), and the next day he arrogantly tosses photos of the couple on Marty's desk. He enjoys bring bad news to cuckolds, you can tell, and his smugness annoys Marty to the point where you know he's being pushed into doing something.
A lot of what happens in "Blood Simple" is subtle and full of nuance, and it's as tightly edited as it is taut drama. In fact, though it ran 99 minutes in theaters, the director's cut was three minutes shorter, and this version is listed at 95 minutes.
Behind the camera is cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to direct "Get Shorty"), and he makes effective use of shadows and partially lit faces and sets in true noir fashion, plus his cutaway shots, reaction shots, and slow pans and tracking shots add additional tension as this story of murderous intentions and misunderstandings on everybody's part plays out.
There are elements in "Blood Simple" that are darkly comic, and the tip-off that the Coens are filming with tongues in cheek comes with an introduction to the film in which a rather old man from "Forever Young Film Restoration" (get it?) introduces the film as if it was a classic that was restored to bring it back to it's original state of brilliance. A trailer quote from Alfred Hitchcock tells viewers "It is very difficult, and very painful, and it takes a very, very long time . . . to kill someone." Despite the contract being issued very early in the film, nobody is FINALLY killed until the final few minutes, with the Coens relying on Hitchcock-like tension to sustain viewer interest in the meantime. And they pull it off. "Blood Simple"--a term the Coens say describes the confusion a murderer experiences after the act--is ironically complex. But as John J. Puccio writes in his DVD review, "It knows exactly what it's up to and provides a solid ninety-odd minutes of genuine suspense and sly, gallows humor"--like a guy who literally sleeps with fishes.
If, like me, you associate Dedaya with his role as Nick Tortelli--Carla's comical ex-husband from "Cheers"--his portrayal of Marty will come as a revelation. You can understand why his wife would want to leave him, there's no exposition to convey that information. Nuances, again, are enough to reveal all sorts of things about his character. Same with McDormand, who handles the Hitchcock thriller moments like a veteran, though it was her first film. Nice guys are always the invisible ones, and Getz as Ray often seems overmatched. It's the sneering, pompous, insidiously slimy P.I. who steals the scenes that he's in, and even when he's off-camera there's still a presence. Much of that is attributable to the cinematography, the pacing, and the intelligent screenplay from Joel and Ethan Coen.
"Blood Simple" is rated R for violence and language.
"Blood Simple" has a smoky look to it, the way that the old P.I. films did. For audiences accustomed to sharp-as-a-Ginsu detail and rich black levels, the Coens' first film will look a little soft . . . especially in night exterior shots. I think the colors are deliberately de-saturated to feed the noir atmosphere, with browns and greys and blacks dominant. "Blood Simple" comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc, and I saw no transfer issues or evidence of attempts to overscrub the film for HD audiences. The Coens appear to have shaved another minute off, and it's this attention to detail that keeps them from messing too much with a good thing. "Blood Simple" is richly atmospheric, and in close-ups and two-shots (on McDormand, especially) you can see nice detail and edge delineation, as when her hair is slightly backlit. While the whole film looks a little soft, with black levels turned down, it seems deliberate . . . and adds to the overall feel of the film. "Blood Simple" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Oddly, "Blood Simple" sports a DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack in English, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. I say "oddly" because everyone is using a 5.1 mix these days, even to update films that were originally presented in Mono. I don't know the reason for the choice, but I can tell you that the film doesn't suffer one bit because of it. The sound comes at you from the front and sides, like it used to in theaters when those Hitchcock films played, and it doesn't feel flat or Mono-hollow. It's a surprisingly full sound--though again I wonder why the decision to go with 2.0.
Fans who have the DVD and want to upgrade will be glad that the hilarious mock-documentary from Kenneth Loring of Forever Young Films is still here. Other than the trailer, that's all you get, though.
With a strong and stylish debut like "Blood Simple," it didn't take a P.I. to see that the Coens were made for big things. If you're looking to upgrade, it's worth the step up to the Blu-ray.