Sundance London 2014: ‘Blue Ruin’ one of the year’s best discoveries

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Blue_Ruin2-thumb-630xauto-38531

Blue Ruin

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier

USA, 2013

Although it was mocked in Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, the biblical rule of an eye for an eye remains a potent cinematic force as the central vengeance-fuelled driver of Blue Ruin, last year’s surprise winner of the Cannes festival FIPRESCI Prize, and one of the most anticipated features in this year’s Sundance London programme. Although righteous retribution erects the film’s form, writer and director Jeremy Saulnier is wise enough to preserve a sense of mystery, and the tense, procedural narrative slowly divulges exactly why the shambling Dwight (Macon Blair) embarks on his unswerving and teeth-grindingly violent quest. All we know from the opening few minutes, when Dwight is picked up from a concerned police officer who discovers him sleeping in his car, is that someone has been released from prison, and the authorities want him to be aware of this for his safety and to warn him that they are watching them both closely. To reveal any more would be criminal and undermine the film’s Swiss-watch rigour.

So far, it’s business as usual, as many vengeance-fuelled films have their protagonists molded as steely-eyed automatons unswerving from the path of righteous retribution, from their merciless pursuit of justice. But Blue Ruin gives the trope a twist, which provokes the pitch-black comedy and unpredictable trajectory of the plot: our hero is actually a little bumbling and isn’t sure what he’s doing, improvising his enigmatic campaign with a DIY clumsiness and frequently hilarious, darkly comic consequences. The film follows that great tradition of independent US triumphs by the filmmakers bankrupting themselves with maxed-out credit cards, re-mortgaged homes, and the now ubiquitous Kickstarter campaign. Such is their devotion to the story they seem compelled to share, but despite the miniscule budget, it looks ten times its reputed six-figure cost, with a beautiful cerulean-tinged photography emulating Dwight’s cold moral universe, alongside inky neo-noir blacks scattering a malevolent menace across the screen.

It’s Blair’s almost autistic performance that may be the key to the film’s feudal mystery. He holds the film together as the slow reveal of his violent ordeal is incrementally exhumed; his performance, like the film, is a breakthrough and we’ll hopefully be seeing more of him and Saulnier in the near future. If one was to emulate the films’ stripped down economy the shorthand would be to couch the film as Coens-esque, specifically the merciless urbanity and obdurate noir of Blood Simple or No Country For Old Men. This film’s serious-minded violence has a weight and gravity rarely seen in US cinema, with each blasted bullet and frenetic stab wound resulting in dire, irreversible mortal consequences, as Dwight inexorably patiently prowls to his electrifying and perfectly pitched climax. Blue Ruin is a sparse and severe thriller with an oozing sense of brooding dark humour, one of the year’s best and a merciless festival favourite.

— John McEntee

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