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(1984/2000) (John Getz, Frances McDormand) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: Things spiral out of control when a bitter husband hires a seedy private detective to kill his wife and one of his employees with whom she's having an affair.
Abby (FRANCES McDORMAND) is a young and unhappy wife to Julian Marty (DAN HEDAYA), a bitter and middle-aged Texas roadhouse owner. As such, she confides in one of Julian's barkeeps, Ray (JOHN GETZ) about her unhappiness, and despite him proclaiming that he's no marriage counselor, the two end up in bed together.

This eventually gets back to Julian through photos taken by Visser (M. EMMET WALSH), a seedy private detective the barkeep hired. Glad that her wife's lover isn't his other barkeep, Maurice (SAMM-ART WILLIAMS), Julian is nonetheless irritated over the confirmation of the affair. As such, he offers to pay Visser ten thousand dollars to kill the two. The slimy private eye eventually agrees, telling Julian to hit the road for several days, keep his mouth shut, and that everything will be taken care of.

Julian does just that, and upon returning to town, meets Visser who states he did the job and wants his cash. Keeping his end of the bargain, Julian pays up. A sudden and unexpected action, as well as a later revelation, however, suddenly puts a new spin on what's occurred. From that point on, the various parties involved suddenly get suspicious of the others who take it upon themselves to tie up any loose ends.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Public opinion, misinformation and gossip to the contrary, most everyone in the film business is not an overnight success. Instead, they're the victor and/or survivor of years of hard and usually under-appreciated or unrecognized work on scores of films, many of them unknown to the average moviegoer.

For example, before "Titanic" and the "Terminator" films, director James Cameron labored away on "Piranha II: The Spawning." Martin Scorsese directed "Boxcar Bertha" in the years before "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," while Alfred Hitchcock worked in various jobs for decades on many films before making a name for himself with his later, better known efforts.

Even noted film director Steven Spielberg - while not possessing any "B" movie credentials in his early days - helmed the little seen "Duel" and "The Sugarland Express" before directing his later, higher profile films such as "Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan."

While brothers Joel and Ethan Coen ("The Big Lebowski," "Raising Arizona") aren't as recognizable by name as their more famous counterparts, some of their works are, including their best known and most critically acclaimed effort, 1996's "Fargo" (recipient of seven Oscar nominations and winner of two). One may wonder then, about their first effort, 1984's "Blood Simple" and how it stacks up against other first-time works and/or their later efforts.

With the re-release of that film in its new and shorter "director's cut" version, audiences will once again see that the brotherly filmmaking team certainly knew what they were doing from the beginning. Arguably one of the most accomplished and engaging cinematic debuts of the past quarter century, the film is a taut and suspenseful thriller that evokes memories of Hitchcock and easily blows away and is more satisfying than many recent efforts in the genre.

Prefaced by an odd but funny introduction where a mockingly pompous character by the name of Mortimer Young describes the film in a glowing, but satirically stuffy Masterpiece Theater fashion ("This exquisite masterpiece has been digitally swabbed, the boring parts have been taken out, and other things added…"), the film's "beauty" is in the straightforwardness of its underlying basic plot.

Yet, much like Phillip Noyce's "Dead Calm," such simplicity, when handled correctly, can make for some terrific cinema. That's certainly the case here where a cuckolded and bitter husband hires a seedy private eye to kill his wife and her lover. What seems like a simple plan obviously soon goes awry and begins to twist about in all directions, and that's where the fun begins.

Now, some may argue that the film's lack of any truly sympathetic character robs it of delivering its full impact, and that is somewhat of a valid point. Nonetheless, the way in which writer/director Joel and co-writer Ethan masterfully manipulate the story, its characters and the viewer more than makes up for such an omission. As such, what initially seems like a simple plot suddenly becomes far more complex and the ensuing, related scenes turn out to be quite riveting in nature.

Although the picture occasionally shows its low-budget, independent film roots (in both look and some stilted dialogue), most of the time is has an incredibly assertive and imaginative air about it that not only belies the filmmakers' inexperience and their modest budget, but also manages, for the most part, to impress the viewer.

Most notable among that is the film's camera work by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (who would later go on to direct the "Addams Family" movies as well as "Men in Black"). While the film's scant number of characters and locales could had led to a rather static looking and feeling production, the Coens - through Sonnenfeld - effectively move and use the camera to create the exact opposite effect. Not to be outdone, the filmmakers' use of sound - whether it be that of circulating fans or of one characters' computer terminal - is similarly superb, as is composer Carter Burwell's simple, but highly effective score.

For the type and style of story the film tells, the performances are also generally solid. Most notable is Frances McDormand ("Wonder Boys," "Paradise Road") whose character here is quite distinct from her Oscar winning role in "Fargo." A bit reminiscent in look and demeanor to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character in the "Alien" films, McDormand delivers a good performance.

While John Getz ("The Fly," "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead") is okay but doesn't make much of a lasting impression in his role, Dan Hedaya ("Shaft," "Clueless") and M. Emmett Walsh ("Wild Wild West," "Twilight") are perfectly cast as the vengeful husband and the slimy private eye respectively. The latter gets the film's meatiest role and certainly creates its most memorable character.

While some may complain that the Coens borrowed a bit too heavily and often from Hitchcock in fashioning this film, the resultant effect feels more like homage rather than a rip-off (although many films that followed this one can be accused of just that). With a fun and imaginative visual approach at telling their story and a palatable degree of tension that rivals that found in many a horror film, it's hard to imagine that this was a freshman effort.

Although not quite up to par with some of the brothers' later works - in overall polish and substantial character depth - one can't argue with the effectiveness of this film as a taut, first-rate, suspense thriller. As such, "Blood Simple" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 28, 2000 / Posted July 14, 2000

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