Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Stories of revenge aren’t hard to find in American cinema; most are grim shoot-‘em-ups with less interest in the aftermath than in pushing their ultra-determined heroes to pull the trigger and reach a bloody catharsis. So the new independent picture Blue Ruin stands apart from the rest of this thriller subgenre; at the outset, it appears to be but a mild twist on the general notion of a lone wolf seeking vengeance on faceless bad guys who’ve done him wrong. By the end, it morphs into a thoughtful and intense meditation on the consequences of revenge as opposed to a bloodthirsty achievement of the same.
Dwight (Macon Blair) is a vagrant killing time on the shores of Delaware; as Blue Ruin opens, he scours the state’s beaches for meager trinkets and baubles, rifling through dumpsters to keep himself fed. Soon, he’s told by a kindly but wary police officer that the man who killed his parents 20 years ago is being let out of prison, back into the arms of his seedy family of backwoods gangsters. Dwight now has a sole purpose in life: kill this man and gain retribution for a festering personal wound. But Blue Ruin dispenses with whether or not Dwight will—at least in his own mind—balance the scales within the first 15 minutes; the story is less about him getting what he wants, and more about the price he has to pay for his quest for revenge. Each choice he makes has an unstoppable ripple effect, so that one action cannot be ignored. What should be a simple, immutable act of violence turns into a familial tragedy.
Jeremy Saulnier, who wrote, directed, and photographed the film, isn’t making his debut feature here—that would be the 2007 film Murder Party, also starring Blair—but Blue Ruin feels like an emphatic statement of purpose from a young filmmaker who deserves the attention. We often praise films, perhaps even more so now because of the onslaught of appointment television, for embracing an almost novelistic form, but we should do the same equally when a film calls to mind a compact, tightly composed, and taut short story. Such is the case with Blue Ruin, which abides by the old standby of creative short fiction: show, don’t tell.
In a scene where he reconnects with his estranged sister, after only a couple of minutes of conversation, Dwight remarks, “I’m not used to talking this much.” Neither is the film; outside of a handful of scenes, including a high point where Dwight faces down his parents’ killer’s brother, dialogue is eschewed in favor of arresting, Southern Gothic-esque visuals that make the backwoods of Virginia as foreboding as anything from the tales of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Both the story and the presentation are pared down to the minimum, a lean product with absolutely no fat. Saulnier’s eye for visuals, coupled with the patient editing from Julia Bloch, allow Blue Ruin to be exceptionally well-crafted; it’s legitimately shocking to realize, after the fact, that this film was partially the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign whose goal was merely $35,000. Among other things, Blue Ruin doesn’t look cheap, but is extremely calculated and feels awfully precise in its construction.
Blair, a relative unknown, is up to the challenge of playing Dwight, who’s clearly wracked with emotion after two decades of being on his own and forcing himself to face his fears head-on. In that reunion with his sister, as well as in more brutal and graphic scenes, he uses his bulging eyes to communicate so much emotion and tension. Also, having a relatively milquetoast guy as the lead (when he’s a bearded vagrant, Blair recalls a thinner Zach Galifianakis, but when he’s clean-shaven, he looks like he’d be at home as a manager at Costco) is, in itself, a nice twist on the revenge scenario. Dwight is many things, but a traditional hero, he’s not. In one sequence, he essentially has to be trained to use a gun before he can use it properly. The nature of Blue Ruin means there’s not much time for other performers to have much of an impact, but Devin Ratray, as an old friend of Dwight’s, and Kevin Kolack, as the killer’s brother, make the best of their few minutes on screen; the latter gets a most telling line of dialogue: “That’s how this works, man. The one with the gun gets to tell the truth.”
In a subtle way, Blue Ruin is as much about the accuracy behind a thirst for revenge as it is about the logical ways that thirst extends outward. Dwight’s desire to get the man who killed his parents, his single-minded drive, means that he’s unwilling to acknowledge the mere possibility of a more disturbing, untidy truth about this double murder. And his desire ends up setting off a spiral of disaster, one he controls about as well as he controls a shotgun. (He’s no crack shot.) As unwieldy and unsure as Dwight is, the film he’s the center of is assured and confident, a tightly wound thriller that utilizes its brief running time—with credits, it’s 90 minutes long—expertly. Blue Ruin is the work of a fine young filmmaker, and should portend a healthy future career, if there’s any justice in this world.
— Josh Spiegel