Blood Simple - The Criterion Collection 4K Ultra HD Blu-rayOverview -
Marking the impressive debut of Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple is a beautifully crafted crime thriller, expressively celebrating the mystery and suspense of classic film noir, and it stars Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, and John Getz. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection, the crime thriller creeps its way to 4K Ultra HD with a gorgeous Dolby Vision HDR presentation but the same disappointing DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack without the option for the original stereo track. Nevertheless, with the same attractive selection of bonus material, the overall UHD package comes Recommended with some mild hesitation.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s career-long darkly comic road trip through misfit America began with this razor-sharp, hard-boiled neonoir set somewhere in Texas, where a sleazy bar owner releases a torrent of violence with one murderous thought. Actor M. Emmet Walsh looms over the proceedings as a slippery private eye with a yellow suit, a cowboy hat, and no moral compass, and Frances McDormand’s cunning debut performance set her on the road to stardom. The tight scripting and inventive style that have marked the Coens’ work for decades are all here in their first film, in which cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld abandons black-and-white chiaroscuro for neon signs and jukebox colors that combine with Carter Burwell’s haunting score to lurid and thrilling effect. Blending elements from pulp fiction and low-budget horror flicks, Blood Simple reinvented the film noir for a new generation, marking the arrival of a filmmaking ensemble that would transform the American independent cinema scene.
DIRECTOR-APPROVED 4K UHD + BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Blood Simple is the debut film from Joel and Ethan Coen, igniting a unique sibling collaboration that's lasted for four decades and has produced some of the most fascinating and beloved films for cinephiles everywhere. Other than being an instant critical success, the crime thriller demonstrated and prefigured the duo's distinctive filmmaking style with a penchant for bleak, dark comedy set in a noirish mise en scène. This movie, as in all the others that soon followed, reveals their love for film in general and for working within strict genre structures without hindering their ability to entertain. They inform their first feature greatly with subtle nuance from various elements and inspirations that serve as homage while at the same time coming across as surprisingly fresh and inspiring.
The plot is fairly simple, and perhaps even standard, which can be easily argued as a weak point or a fault within the script. As it centers on an adulterous love affair, the tale slowly expands into murder, a double cross and an attempt to cover up the crime. For this to work and play out as it does, the film includes a good deal of misinformation and misunderstanding on the part of our two main characters, played by Frances McDormand and John Getz. In fact, the Coen brothers open with the couple already in the middle of a private conversation that doesn't seem entirely comprehensible. Neither comes out and plainly states what they mean or what they want from the other, and this only worsens when they suspect each other of murder but fail to say it outright.
However, Blood Simple is not about people doing the right thing. It's a film about average, everyday people making bad — even stupid — decisions under some extraordinarily violent circumstances. We, as the viewing audience, and to some degree even as witnesses, are not privy to their inner thoughts though we can gather the reasons behind their actions through their reactions. It's part of what makes them so intriguing and interesting to watch. They respond according to their own logic given the situation they see themselves caught in, revealing a darker side to their personality, which even they were perhaps unaware of. What matters is that these characters have their reasons, are confident of them and act upon them, even at the risk of their own safety and sanity.
The film is also more concerned with experimenting with technique and camerawork, an exercise on the limitations of convention in order to deliver something seemingly inventive and new. While celebrating classic film noir and playing with overt Hitchcockian themes, the sibling duo carefully toys with aspects of horror, creating an apprehensive environment that strings viewers along with bated breath. There are several scenes that can be rightfully pointed out to demonstrate this, but only one in particular has lingered as remarkably haunting. Starting with the discovery of the body and ending with an innocent phone call the next morning, the burial sequence is nearly thirty brilliant minutes without dialogue, yet it's astonishingly suspenseful and highly expressive.
With cinematography by a then-unknown Barry Sonnenfeld, Blood Simple is a beautifully crafted exercise in neo-noir, marking the startlingly and decidedly impressive debut of the Coen brothers. It's a stylishly atmospheric crime thriller in which the sibling duo shares their love and knowledge of film, revealing that much can be gained from convention so long as it's done right. Even the plot comes with a kind of familiarity to it where the way in which the story unfolds is none too surprising. But the dark, moody photography and excellent camerawork create a rather elegantly lyrical pace in the narrative, which is incredibly engaging with immersive, nail-biting suspense. It's a must-watch for any Coen fan.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
This 4K Ultra HD edition of Joel & Ethan Coen's Blood Simple comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #834) as a two-disc collector's edition. The dual-layered UHD66 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region A locked, BD50 disc, and both are housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a foldout pamphlet with pictures from the film on one side. On the back, owners will find an insightful essay entitled "Down Here, You're on Your Own" by author and film critic Nathaniel Rich. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options on the left and full-motion clips playing in the background.
According to the accompanying pamphlet, the HEVC H.265 encode was struck from a new restoration and remaster of the original 35mm camera negatives, which is likely the same master used for the 2016 Blu-ray supervised by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and the Coen brothers. And the results are splendid with this native 4K transfer offering a notable uptick in overall definition and clarity, boasting distinct fine lines in the furniture and walls of the bar, Ray's house and Abby's apartment. We can also better make out the individual hairs, pores and negligible blemishes in the cast, and the texture and stitching in the costumes are very well-defined. As is to be expected, some scenes appear softer and blurrier than others with less than pleasing resolution shifts, but they can all be chalked up to age, film stock and the photography style at the time.
The Dolby Vision HDR presentation also arrives with a spot-on contrast and brightness balance, supplying the visuals with brighter, squeaky-clean whites throughout. Specular highlights are more subtle but add a crisper sheen along metallic surfaces and a more radiant glow from the light fixtures, maintaining terrific clarity and visibility of background information with daylight exterior sequences looking particularly dynamic. Meanwhile, the improved black levels offer inkier, more stygian shadows without ruining or obscuring the finer details within the darkest, murkiest corners, not only complementing the plot's creepy, suspenseful atmosphere but also providing the 1.85:1 image with appreciable depth and cinematic appeal. While the improvement in the colors is rather nuanced, the overall palette is fuller with richer, more sumptuous primaries, and secondary hues are more varied and prominent than its HD SDR counterpart. Facial complexions seem to benefit the most, looking more lifelike with a healthier, peachy-red tone in the cast.
In the end, the crime thriller creeps its way to 4K Ultra HD with a gorgeous video awash in a fine layer of natural grain, giving the transfer an attractive film-like quality and making this edition the best possible presentation of a classic neo-noir film. (Dolby Vision HDR Video Rating: 86/100)
For this UHD edition of the Blood Simple, Criterion provides the same DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack as the 2016 Blu-ray release, which is surprising and rather disappointing. My thoughts have sadly not changed, so I will repeat what I wrote in my original review.
Unfortunately, the original Ultra Stereo mix (Left, Center, Right, Surround) has been upgraded to 5.1 surround sound in DTS-HD Master Audio with the addition of new Foley effects, and it is the only option available. And frankly, I'm of the opinion that this was done in poor taste because the new sound effects are distractingly obvious and quite pronounced — loud and phony enough to sorely disappoint this audiophile.
"It's great that Criterion brought in Skip Lievsay to supervise the making of this track. He's been working with the Coen Brothers as sound editor from the beginning, before proving himself a talented, award-nominated sound mixer and designer. [ . . .] Needless to say, with that sort of talent behind the making of this lossless mix, I am genuinely surprised by the poor results.
"The first release, which arrived in lossless stereo, as it was meant to be, revealed some limitations in the original recording. The mid-range is pretty limited and not very dynamic with very little movement in the higher frequencies. In spite of that, imaging exhibits excellent clarity and precision across the entire soundstage. In fact, the new track maintains a front-heavy presentation without any notable activity in the side speakers. Overall, it's fairly wide and engaging, but only the beautifully memorable score of Carter Burwell appears to benefit from the upgrade, delivering terrific separation and warm fidelity between each piano key.
"The notably distracting issues keeping this high-rez mix from a higher score are the annoyingly fake sounds of cars and semi-trailer trucks in the background, which is completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the story. Meanwhile, gunshots are incredibly loud while sounding synthetic and flat. And although low bass provides a bit of weight and presence to the action, it also feels muddled, artificial and ultimately brings too much attention to itself. Worst of all, vocals are often unclear and unintelligible. They are not necessarily drowned out by other noises in the background, as much as the conversations and voices are simply coming in a lower volume, making it difficult to clearly understand what some characters are saying.
"In the end and overall, this new surround mix delivers an unnatural and distractingly manufactured soundfield, which is greatly disappointing to this audio purist." (Audio Rating: 60/100)
The classic Coen brothers flick arrives with the same collection of supplements as its predecessor, and they are all housed in the accompanying Blu-ray copy.
- Shooting Blood Simple (HD, 70 min)
- Conversation with Dave Eggers (HD, 35 min)
- Frances McDormand (HD, 25 min)
- M. Emmet Walsh (HD, 17 min)
- Sound and Music (HD, 17 min)
- Trailers (HD, 7 min)
Blood Simple is a beautifully crafted crime thriller, expressively celebrating the mystery and suspense of classic film noir. Starring Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, and John Getz, the 1984 movie also marks the impressive debut of Joel and Ethan Coen, a sibling team that has produced an amazing collection of films. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection, the crime thriller creeps its way to 4K Ultra HD with a gorgeous Dolby Vision HDR presentation but the same disappointing DTS-HD MA track without giving purists the option for the original stereo track. Nevertheless, with the same attractive selection of bonus material, the overall UHD package comes Recommended with some mild hesitation.
All disc reviews at High-Def Digest are completed using the best consumer HD home theater products currently on the market. More about the gear used for this review.
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