by Kathie Smith
Revenge films these days usually come in a very familiar package of dark, stylized aggression performed by people psychologically mutated into quick-witted demons. Quentin Tarantino and Park Chan-wook serve as kings of this contemporary trade, but they are merely the current top dogs in a long and varied line of directors serving up vengeance. Even considering this broader lineage, which would include The Big Heat, The Virgin Spring, and Straw Dogs, Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is a very unique creature in the revenge topography with a taciturn lead and vague provocations. Lending delicate attributes to a blood feud, Blue Ruin subtly arranges its elements and proves the compelling possibilities of what can be done when working outside of rote stratagem.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Producers: Richard Peete, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Cinematographer: Jeremy Saulnier
Music: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Editor: Julia Bloch
Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidné Anderson
Premiere: May 17, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 25, 2014
US Distributor: RADiUS-TWC
Movies selling an-eye-for-an-eye entertainment are by definition saddled with questions of moral justification. Employing dramatic license (otherwise known as shiny false pretenses), most narratives light emotional fires under motivations and likewise pad self-defined villains with pulp distain and heroes with ersatz empathy. Blue Ruin takes a decidedly more ambiguous approach to establishing the stakes and roles as we meet Dwight (Macon Blair), a beach bum living well off the grid. Dwight collects bottles and cans on the beach, dumpster dives for food, reads books in a car he has converted into a camp, and occasionally breaks into an unoccupied house to take a bath. His solitude, silence, and lifestyle, along with his untrimmed beard, would lead us to believe he is either crazy or enlightened, a judgment largely defined by the viewer, not the movie.
When a police officer pulls up to his tarp-covered car one morning to rouse Dwight from sleep, we find out that the police know who he is and for some reason respect his anonymity, despite his vagrancy. His infamy, it seems, lays buried in an unspoken event that the film uses patience to sketch out. Dwight is asked to come to the station, placed in a room, and told, as the officer pulls out a newspaper, that they wanted him to be in a safe place when he reads that “he’s being released.” Dwight’s reaction is all we need to know that this is not good news. He cashes in his cans and bottles (not enough for a gun, but enough for a postcard), returns to his car, installs the battery he’s been keeping in the trunk, buys a map for Virginia, and hits the road for reasons we don’t totally understand. Blue Ruin’s breadcrumb trail by way of careful storytelling leads us into a fascinating southern gothic tale guided by a woolly character.
The inspired casting of Blair in the lead role anchors this film’s idiosyncrasies. Dwight is not a man who acts with bloodthirsty abandon but instead functions on a painful obligation of blind pragmatism. Blair’s face tells the story of an unresolved trauma, and as he stalks the man in question and sees him for the first time, Dwight’s eyes take on a glassy fragility. Similarly, when he finds himself in the same physical space with his target, he clutches a knife in one hand but covers his mouth out of shock with the other. The more we get to know Dwight (and eventually see him without his beard), the more we understand that savage fortitude is beyond him (as it might be for most people) and that his behavior is an instinctual compulsion as a result of a shattered life. When violence erupts by his own hand, it surprises Dwight as much as it does us. Dwight is not so much inept, as he is human.
Blue Ruin retains that sense of humanity in its earthbound style, keeping the wounds, the fear, and the pain tangible. Saulnier, who has notably worked as cinematographer on all three of Matt Porterfield’s features, adds a pared down atmospheric edge that combines the clear-eyed verisimilitude of I Used to Be Darker with the grimy tension of 70s horror. The movie quickly turns into a cat and mouse game where revenge begets more revenge and Dwight must prepare for his pursuers. One such sequence where he is staked out in his sister’s house feels like an homage to John Carpenter’s Halloween—Jamie Lee Curtis’ Lori and Blair’s Dwight as interchangeable characters preparing for their fate as anticipation slowly builds with each cautious glance out a window.
Make no mistake, Blue Ruin is a brutal downward spiral with little redemption for anyone, but it is also a well-planned puzzle that eschews Hollywood charade for impenetrable characters while embracing unthinkable circumstances. Dwight’s mission to settle a score unravels at both ends with the futile frays of logic and conduct left dangling. His ruin is no more than an extension of his own sadness, prompting an unanticipated chain reaction and producing another scarred individual, much like Dwight, to carry on the emotional legacy. Revenge, in this case, is most certainly not sweet, but Saulnier’s arrival as a director is.