Nihilism, cynicism, misanthropy, condescension, misandry, shallowness, and hollowness. When detractors prepare to properly hem in Joel and Ethan Coen on any given occasion, these are the words that are invariably summoned forth to describe the particular attitudes that the auteurs exude. To be honest, the naysayers aren’t completely wrong. On more than one occasion, the Coens’ considerable talents have been put to use in the name of bitterness and cheap, caustic rib-poking, which might have been okay if their targets weren’t so broadly drawn and if there wasn’t just a hint of smugness in how it all played out. Even in their best work, there are always a few lines, or in some cases entire scenes, that stink of a certain, impermeable snark. Their brand of cinema isn’t one of vulnerability, nor humility for that matter.
This is all to say that it comes as something of a surprise to come back to the Coens’ auspicious debut, Blood Simple, over a quarter-century after it was released and a solid decade since I last saw it, and find that it remains the one true oddity in the Coen canon that I had faintly remembered it as. For whatever barbed, flippant debasements they so freely hand out in their career nowadays, Blood Simple finds the Coens in a tricky, beguilingly sobered formalist mode, building a dark and devious noir out of trove of double-crosses, seedy dealings, a few bad deaths, and one genuinely frightening nightmare, with the Four Tops’s “It’s the Same Old Song” seemingly on repeat.
The use of the Four Tops’s song, and a bit of business toward the front of the film about communism versus Texas law, is about as big as the winks get in Blood Simple. Well, that’s not entirely true: The film begins with a preface from a honcho at the fictitious Forever Young Films, who introduces the picture as if it were a lost masterpiece of sorts. It’s a bit strange and quite cocky (I like the film quite a lot, but Joseph Losey’s The Prowler), though we’re almost immediately whisked into the pulp of the tale, as Ray (John Getz) admits his feelings plainly before taking the boss’s wife, Abby (Frances McDormand in her first role), to a motel and tosses around with her under the sheets for a few hours. Not so long after, her husband, Julian (the great Dan Hedaya), who runs a honky-tonk bar, hires a gleefully perverse, 10-gallon-hat-sporting private dick, Loren (a terrific M. Emmet Walsh), to first take pictures of the lovers and then kill them. Loren offers Julian photos of the couple riddled with bullets and is only happy to show similar respect to his employer, seemingly dispatching him with a single bullet.
As one might expect, the photos were not exactly accurate and that slug didn’t exactly exterminate Julian for good. And things get far grimmer when Loren decides to actually finish the job Julian hired him for, culminating in a denouement as tense and haunting as anything the Coens have ever put to the screen. The story unravels methodically, from a script by the Coens, and the cinematography, courtesy of Barry Sonnenfeld, pre-Addams Family, helps the actors bring out the sinister mood of the story. Take, for instance, Julian’s rushing, brutal, and ultimately hilarious assault on Abby or, in contrast, the sequence in which Julian gives Loren the go-ahead to kill Abby and Ray, taking place in daylight at a Make Out Point-type setting, which nearly drips with inappropriate intimations.
There’s a simple magnetism inherent in this kind of filmmaking, and the Coens know how to orchestrate it. They extend one particular character’s death to exhausting length, so that your nerves have been pan-seared by the time he’s buried alive in the soft Texas soil. But they also complicate the recipe, making Abby a mighty complex femme fatale, one who is more aloof and disinterested than diabolical. Still, this is the Coens in chrysalis, their particular brand of gallows humor having yet to fully ferment. As genre work goes, this is exemplary, chilling stuff, packed with the time-tested totems of the smoky, sweat-stained noir, but there’s a hesitation to bring that wink that presaged the film (and their entire directing career) into the fold and fully embrace their smirk-laden outlook, which has come to sound like the same easy-to-enjoy, hard-to-love song.
It's frankly surprising to see how well Fox has handled this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Definition and resolution are very impressive, with great detailing on clothing and in Julian's honky-tonk bar. Contrast and colors are crisp throughout, and the black levels are very strong, especially considering most of the action occurs in the nighttime. Finally, there are no obtrusive signs of digital manipulation. The audio is similarly strong, mixed, and balanced nicely. Carter Burwell's stirring score, atmosphere noise, effects, and the occasional "It's the Same Old Song" are in near-perfect harmony, with dialogue clearly in front. In this sense, the bar scenes are very impressive indeed.
More inclined to offer jokes than insight, Fox fits Blood Simple with only two extras, neither of which are really worth a damn. The (just barely) more substantial one is a commentary track from a fictitious film historian, who offers a dry, comical commentary not unlike the film's preface stretched out like silly putty. The other is a trailer, and that's all folks.
Over a quarter-century after the fact, the Coens haven't made anything quite like Blood Simple, which receives a solid transfer on this Fox Blu-ray.