“What I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own.”
It’s usually clear early on which directors are destined for greatness, but that doesn’t mean first movies always shine. Even the best film debuts require grading on some sort of curve. That’s not the case with Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple. Their neon-lit Texas noir film isn’t as rich with themes and colorful characters as the movies that would make them famous, but it is just as assured and affecting today as it was in 1984.
Blood Simple is a film about jealousy, betrayal, and the lengths people go to protect those they love. Abby (Frances McDormand) is a restless woman whose boorish husband (Dan Hedaya) owns the bar where her lover (John Getz) works. Her husband finds out about the affair thanks to a sleazy private investigator (M. Emmet Walsh) he hires first to follow them, and then to kill them. What follows is a series of double-crosses, questionable decisions, and tragically poor communication skills.
A basic plot summary makes Blood Simple sound like a lot of crime movies. Little in the film breaks new narrative ground, yet it still feels achingly fresh. The Coens are fascinated with the cost of violence. Murder isn’t an afterthought. It’s messy and difficult and leaves indelible stains, like blood on a windbreaker. The story builds as expected at first, with secrets revealed and jealousy driving a cuckolded husband to seek revenge. Just when everything seems inevitable, though, the story spins out of control. A shocking act of violence. A lengthy, increasingly tense sequence that starts in the backroom of a bar and ends in a plowed Texas field in the middle of the night. A window, hand, and bathroom wall shattering climax. The Coens show us the causes, then linger on the effects of every decision in brutal detail.
Blood Simple isn’t just a title. It also describes the characters. Their romantic and violent entanglements get needlessly complicated, but these aren’t complicated people. With the exception of Frances McDormand’s Abby, this is a world populated by strong, silent men. M. Emmet Walsh’s private investigator has a tendency to pepper conversations with factoids about Russian life, but in the end he’s only interested in money and his hat. What Blood Simple lacks in Lebowskis, it makes up for in understated performances that perfectly fit the tone. This is a film about the limitations of pure self-interest. When Abby and John Getz’s Ray have each other’s backs, nothing can stop them. As soon as they stop trusting each other, it all unravels. On the flip side, Dan Hedaya’s Julian finds out what happens when you trust the wrong person. Looking out for number one is a double-edged sword. Sometimes you’re the fly who gets a nice salty lick of Walsh sweat. Other times you’re at the wrong end of a bug zapper.
Blood Simple launched the feature film career of both the Coens and Barry Sonnenfeld. The future director of Men in Black is the cinematographer of the Coens’ debut, and the results of their collaboration are translated to the small screen in stunning hi-def courtesy of Criterion. The production’s low budget limited the filmmakers’ options when it came to lighting, sets, and equipment — restrictions they somehow turned into assets. This is a gorgeous film, setting rich colors against deep shadows that sell the noir and the story’s underlying darkness. It’s perfect that a film about characters skulking and hiding things from each other should be so dark. Never mind that much of that look comes from the fact they couldn’t afford more lights. The Coens and Sonnenfeld squeeze every ounce of artistry out of a relatively small budget, and Criterion makes their efforts look even better in a 1.85:1 1080p image sourced from a new 4K transfer. Blood Simple takes a similarly effective minimalist approach to sound design. Musician Carter Burwell joins Sonnenfeld and the Coens in the first-timer’s club. His debut feature film score saves the memorable piano theme and tension-filled music for exactly the right moments. The score, dialogue, and heightened atmospheric sound effects come through with clarity and punch in the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix.
Criterion gives Blood Simple the supplementary treatment it deserves, with a thorough collection of bonus features, most of which are brand new for this Blu-ray package:
“Shooting Blood Simple” (78 min): Cinematographer Sonnenfeld and the Coens watch and talk over most of the film, using Telestrator illustrations to highlight key details like cinephile sports announcers. They talk production details, color palettes, and troubleshooting. It’s part film class, part making-of featurette, part hindsight second-guess-fest, all incredibly fascinating.
“A Conversation with Dave Eggers” (35 min): The Coens talk with the famed writer about the difficulties of developing, casting, making, and financing their first film.
“Blurred Lines” (24 min): Burwell and editor Skip Lievsay discuss the musical inspirations and process of scoring and sound design for Blood Simple.
New interviews with Frances McDormand (26 min) and M Emmet Walsh (16 min): The legendary actors look back on the film and their experiences working with the Coens.
A collection of trailers, including the rough-cut “fundraising” trailer they used to sell the idea to potential investors (3 min), the theatrical trailer (2 min), and the re-release trailer (2 min).
Booklet with photos and an essay by Nathaniel Rich.
The Coens first feature film isn’t as simple as the title suggests. The plot can be summarized in a few sentences and the movie is limited to a few locations and a handful of characters, but the genius is in how thoroughly the filmmakers explore every deeply shadowed corner. Blood Simple is a film about how hard it is to kill, and how easily secrets tear people apart. The Coens would go on to make more ambitious, funny, and acrobatic films but there’s something very special about their first feature. Criterion has made sure this Blu-ray release does it justice.