- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2000

''Blood Simple," the low-budget, maliciously distinctive crime thriller that launched the careers of the Coen Brothers in 1985, has returned in a curiously premature "restoration," exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington. Evidently the Coens, writer-director Joel and writer-producer Ethan, seized an opportunity to improve the soundtrack in particular prior to a DVD edition. It has amused them to add a tongue-in- cheek prologue, hosted by an avuncular preservationist called Mortimer Young, who briefly interrupts his reading and pipe-smoking to salute the movie as "an exquisite masterpiece."

While never plausibly answering to that description, "Blood Simple" was a nasty little attention-getter when new and distributed by Circle Films in Washington, which backed the Coens on their first four movies. "Blood Simple" was enough of an art-house sensation to make the careers of the two young Circle executives authorized to acquire and market it, Jim Jacks and Chris Zarpas, who went on to become Hollywood producers.

USA Films seems to have purchased distribution rights for the restoration. According to a press kit interview with the brothers, the condition of the first generation of theatrical prints had deteriorated beyond repair, making it far more sensible to return to the original camera negative for new copies. As long as that was advisable, several audiovisual touch-ups were also desirable. But apart from the Mortimer Young hoax, the movie remains intact.

What has changed, of course, is one's sense of who the Coens are and what they might be capable of as filmmakers. Fifteen years ago it wouldn't have seemed likely that a modest little bloodcurdler like "Blood Simple" would contribute to the aggrandizement of crime thrillers in general, but now the most lionized genre among younger generations of movie buffs is "film noir," the borrowed French term for fatalistic or hard-boiled crime yarns.

One also has more of a history with two of the cast members who were new faces in "Blood Simple": Frances McDormand and Dan Hedaya as a Texas marital mismatch, Abby and Marty. The plot revolves around the embittered Marty's discovery that Abby is carrying on a love affair with Ray (John Getz), one of the bartenders at his saloon. After a failed attempt to get rough personally, Marty commissions the repulsive, contemptuous private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) who snooped on the adulterers, to add homicide to his workload. A cycle of double-crosses and reversals ensue in the aftermath of this blood-money pact. Ultimately, Miss McDormand is isolated in an apartment with a potential killer, not to mention bits of business that echo "Rear Window" and "Blade Runner."

Although Miss McDormand was destined to become Mrs. Joel Coen and the Academy Award-winning beneficiary of a lovable role in the Coens' best crime thriller, "Fargo," she was stuck with the most negligible characterization in "Blood Simple." Despite her estrangement from Marty, Abby seems a marginal player during most of the plot. Perhaps this is just as well, since there's no reason to crave a brutalized woman as part of the reprisal spectacle, but Abby ends up seeming a bust as a femme fatale. She didn't necessarily have to, since Miss McDormand in 1985 displayed a promising resemblance to Jane Fonda, who excelled at looking for trouble in her best roles.

Mr. Hedaya, already well-advanced in his slow burn, and Miss McDormand shared an amusing facial feature: similarly dimpled chins. Keeping everything tight, laconic and heartless, the Coens made an exploitable virtue of limited resources and pitiless outlooks. The most compelling sequence in the movie is a body-disposal ordeal that makes you wonder if one character will ever take pity on another. He doesn't, and the Coens betray their own contempt for the setting and characters by failing to demonstrate any pity of their own. In response, you may find yourself rooting for a despised but helpless character, because punishing him also obliges the Coens to acknowledge that he has a tremendous will to live while mortally wounded.

Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, later a successful director, sustained such ominous low lighting that a few scenes approach mystery radio. In retrospect the need for actual Texas locations seems whimsical. It might have been wittier for the Coens to fake everything in New York interiors and nearby Jersey exteriors. The wintry Minnesota backdrops of "Fargo" were a comic, scene-setting essential. "Blood Simple" is so claustrophobic that you tend to think of it as studio-bound even when the scenes shift outdoors.

TWO STARS OUT OF FOUR STARS

TITLE: "Blood Simple"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details)

CREDITS: Directed by Joel Coen. Produced by Ethan Coen. Written by Joel and Ethan Coen.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

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