By now the Coen Brothers are indelible part of the cinematic landscape. Each of their new films are an event for cinephiles to digest and discuss. It all started 32 years ago with Blood Simple, their incredibly assured directorial debut. Now the subject of a new 4K restoration from the good people at Janus Films, Blood Simple is returning to theaters before coming to home video on a new deluxe Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. But revisiting this film for the first time in years ahead of its opening at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles, I was stricken by the fact that all of the quirks and tics that are now referred to as Coen-esque were almost fully formed in their debut feature. It’s rare enough that a debut feature is practically a masterpiece, but for a debut feature to lay the groundwork for a legendary, Oscar-winning career that hasn’t slowed a bit in over three decades is practically unfathomable.
Throughout their career, the Coen Brothers have told stories of people involved with a criminal element that is beyond their grasp. Sometimes this is played for comedic effect in movies like Burn After Reading and other times it’s played for maximum suspense as with their Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men. That theme that seemingly runs through all of their work (with a few notable exceptions) originated in the dusty streets of Texas with Blood Simple.
The movie opens with Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand) discussing their relationship during a rainy drive at night. They’re not planning a murder, they’re planning an escape. Abby plans to leave her husband Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), who is also Ray’s boss at a local bar. However, Julian has his own suspicions as to his wife’s fidelity and hires the private eye Lorne Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to spy upon her. When Julian’s darkest suspicions are confirmed, he hires Lorne to carry out the murder of Ray and Abby. Only Lorne doesn’t follow through, instead using photographic trickery to present Julian the illusion that the job was carried out and shooting Julian as a means to steal his money and frame Abby for the crime. But this a Coen Brothers crime caper, so there’s no such thing as a perfect crime. Hell, there’s no such thing as a moderately competent crime in their films.
Ray stumbles upon Julian’s body, bleeding the backroom of his bar. Convinced that Abby carried out the crime, Ray meticulously cleans up the puddles of blood, incinerates the evidence, and drives Julian to a farmland field to bury his remains. However, Julian isn’t dead and Ray must finish what he believes his lover set out to do. Everything crumbles as distrust and confusion creates a division among the lovers, and the ruthless Lorne is watching and lurking in the shadows hoping that no other complications ruin his perfect crime.
I’ve seen Blood Simple many times before, but seeing it in the theater for the first time with this new restoration brought so many of the film’s little details into perspective. Watching the movie at home never does justice to just how well the score from Carter Burwell emphasizes the uneasy tension of the film’s story. Also brought into bigger perspective is the cinematography from Barry Sonnenfeld, who has gone on to be a fairly successful director in his own right. The shadows that occupy the frame recall some of the classic film noir of the past. The majestic cinematography are really present in two of the film’s key sequences – one being when Ray is preparing to bury the still breathing Julian and the other being the film’s climax when Abby fights Lorne, the private eye shooting holes in a wall; light pouring through the bullet holes into a darkened room for maximum suspense.
The thought that kept circling through my mind during Blood Simple was “It’s just not fair.” From their very first feature, the Coen Brothers already had their brilliance firmly in place. Their wry, sardonic sense of humor is there in Blood Simple. Their unique ability to craft memorable supporting characters. Their ability to craft tension and suspense on the level of Alfred Hitchcock. The sibling filmmakers have purely cinematic minds and the tools to implement their ideas for maximum effectiveness. Typically even the greats have to work through a process of trial and error with their films, slowly perfecting their craft. That’s just not the case with the Coen Brothers, and Blood Simple might be the greatest debut feature ever if not for a little movie called Citizen Kane.
If this glorious restoration of Blood Simple is playing at theater near you anytime soon, make the effort to see it on the big screen. It’s a truly amazing piece of cinema that is only more impressive when you realize this is their debut feature. However, if you’re unable to catch this masterful debut at a local theater, it will be available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of the Criterion Collection on September 20th, 2016. Blood Simple is so good it’s criminal, and missing this amazing restoration would also be criminal.
One of the greatest debut features ever, the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple returns to theaters in a stunning restoration of this tense murder story that lays the foundation of greatness for the sibling filmmakers legendary career.