[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Blue Ruin opens today in limited release.]
Fatalism is inherent in the revenge drama. No one gets away clean. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin brings a unique spin to the revenge film by acknowledging the inevitable blowback and responding with a sad, reluctant sigh. The movie is ominous, tragic, and intriguingly defeatist. There’s no code or noble intentions. The film doesn’t relish vengeance. Rather, it sorrowfully accepts its ugliness and weakness, but without ever losing the tension of violent retribution.
Dwight (Macon Blair) is a homeless man who quietly lives out his days, relaxing on the beach, sleeping in his bullet-ridden blue car, and breaking into unoccupied homes when he needs to bathe. When he learns that his parents’ murderer Wade Cleland is about to be released from prison after serving his twenty-year plea bargain, Dwight goes to take his revenge. However, the vengeance doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, and the meek but resourceful Dwight must figure out how to protect his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) from the wrath of the Cleland clan.
Saulnier skillfully weaves an ominous yet resigned tone from the silence spread throughout the picture. The soft-spoken Dwight even says to Sam at one point, “I’m not used to talking this much.” The movie is a restrained whisper, the kind someone makes when they’re really mad, and it’s so much more terrifying than if they were just wild and yelling. But the silence is always tinged with sadness. Saulnier’s restraint works wonders and gives the film its unique tone.
Despite the melancholy that hangs over the picture, it’s also suffused with wonderful little moments of dark comedy and shocking violence. Neither is done to titillate or alleviate, but to play into the absurdity of the situation and make sure that the violence—which is quite gory—carries weight. This is not an easy task for Dwight, and the way the situation spirals out of control only creates further demands of a man who is surprisingly resourceful, but emotionally reluctant to unleash further bloodshed. It’s rare to see a depressed avenger.
Saulnier has written himself a captivating protagonist with Dwight, and Blair is superb in the role. His sad, forlorn eyes never display anger at his victims or satisfaction with his acts. Dwight has almost been in stasis for decades. We can see that his inability to cope with his parents’ murder has wrecked his life, and his life has led to this. He hasn’t trained or prepared for it, but this revenge is the slow slide towards the inevitable. Blair masterfully displays Dwight’s resignation without ever making it appear like indifference. He’s a man walking to the gallows, but forced to kill some people on the way there.
Blue Ruin doesn’t blow apart the revenge genre, and that’s not its goal. It’s not a subversion of the genre or a critique, but a refreshingly welcome change-up that brings a new tone and plays that tone well. Revenge has never been so desolate, and even though the film can suck the air out of the room and play tense moments for all they’re worth, it’s the anguish in Blue Ruin that lingers.