Running Time: 90 mins.
Release Date: May 02nd, 2014 (UK Release)
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier (Screenplay),
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, David W. Thompson, Sidne Anderson,
Blue Ruin has the sort of indie film genesis of legend. Two old friends, director Jeremy Saulnier and star Macon Blair, had long worked together but success had eluded them. This was their last shot at making a mark as filmmakers but they ran out of money when filming and so the director and his wife put their life-savings into the project and turned to Kickstarter. It turned out to be a good idea because Blue Ruin went on to gain good press at Cannes where it won the Fipresci Prize and a wide release (at least here in the UK). Blue Ruin is a pulpy slice of revenge narrative with an indie sensibility that twists a familiar story into something disturbing and shocking.
The film starts in a house, a man with a wild beard is in the bath but the sound of a car stopping and a family entering prompts him to hop out of the bath and through an open window because this isn’t his house. The man is Dwight, a homeless drifter, who lives out of a beat up car picking up bottles to earn a few dollars, fishing through theme park dumpsters for food and reading at night by torch. He is isolated and alone and it is clear he has suffered some trauma. When a police cruiser rolls up it seems that he’s going to get arrested.
“I’d like you to come to the station with me. Dwight, sweetheart, I’ll explain.”
Worse is in store for Dwight as he learns that a man in prison for committing an awful act against Dwight’s family is about to be released. Dwight is stunned by the news. After a night of soul-searching, Dwight has set his sights on getting revenge. He shaves his beard, fixes his car, tries to acquire weapons, gathers his money and courage and hits the road, heading towards his target. Things soon spiral out of control…
Revenge is a good way to create tragedy and the revenge-narrative is a staple of storytelling from Greek mythology, exploitation films like I Spit on Your Grave to opera like Rigoletto. What makes Blue Ruin noteworthy is the lead character and the way it uses him to explore the poisonous results of revenge and how the violence embraced by action movies has awful and tragic consequences.
I’d forgive you if you were crazy but you’re not. You’re weak.
From the first scene to the last, Macon Blair as Dwight is an essay in fear and reluctance and fatalism. Dwight has the look of one of life’s underachievers. Short, slightly overweight, sad puppy dog eyes, he is quiet and has an air of melancholy. He is not your typical square-jawed hero or tough heroine he looks more like the guy who works in IT. He is a normal dude but he wants revenge for a grave trauma.
Alas, Dwight is rather hapless and occasionally helpless. He is no scrapper and he can barely aim a gun. He lacks the nerve and the heartlessness to kill and hesitates at crucial moments, his body takes punishment and when he tries to patch himself up he just makes things worse. Although he is intelligent and conniving, he is also a coward. When facing violence fear is usually etched in face, eyes wide with fright hands clutching his gaping mouth. Seeing his fright invokes a feeling of sympathy but Dwight’s path of vengeance soon makes the overwhelming emotion that emerges in the film one of fear.
Fear is an emotion that the film stokes when it explores the issue of revenge and its fallout. Within the first quarter of the film Dwight has fulfilled what whole films are dedicated to but his violent desire and short-sighted actions cause the situation to escalate beyond anything he could imagine especially with his sister Sam and her children introduced as we see that retribution can go both ways.
Sam, played equal parts smart and sympathetic and hard by Amy Hargreaves, is a single-mother working a decent job to support two cute and young daughters. She is in the process of rebuilding her life after the crime but Dwight’s actions derail this. Revenge might be justifiable in movie terms and Sam may also desire revenge, something fuelled by the loathing she feels for the criminal and his family, but when she realises the danger that Dwight’s actions may bring to her doorstep, the anger she has is turned on Dwight and she realises that the price of vengeance might be too high. At this point the film grows even more terrifying as we wonder how far the violence will extend as two families go to war.
No speeches. No talking. You point the gun. You shoot him.
The film’s indie foundation can be sensed in the lean running time and business-like approach to things. Despite some black comedy from Devin Ratray as Dwight’s high school friend, things are deadly serious. There are no ostentatious action scenes, the action is not pumped up. It feels like it is taking place in reality. Characters may shoot at each other but hitting things is hard. Dramatic speeches about revenge in diners are kept to a minimum or interrupted by everyday reality like random people asking for ketchup.
The film’s pace has a raw and immediate energy that sucks the audience into the spiralling chaos. The story becomes scary because it feels realistic. On-screen fights are quick but very brutal and very messy affairs where Dwight’s inexperience with violence makes situations take alarming turns and ratchets up the tension generated by the film. Violence is not fetishized or made a joke of, it is gory and harrowing and it feels like anybody and everybody can be caught up in it.
Through fearing for Dwight’s safety and seeing the appalling results of the action on screen these moments help the film sell the senseless nature of violence that other films delight in displaying. There are quiet and contemplative moments where Dwight considers his actions and the results, moments like when he is in his niece’s room looking at toys or leafing through family photo albums. Seeing the innocence that has been shattered makes one feel a sense despair over the death and killing. There is one big irony in the backstory that is slowly revealed and this with everything we have seen reinforces the idea that violence is too quickly turned to and made easier to conduct thanks to the widespread presence of guns and it is hard not to sense some sort of criticism of America’s gun culture.
Director Jeremy Saulnier also played the role of writer and cinematographer and his skill in showing the damage to people is impressive. The direction makes this more palpable by favouring close-ups on faces over the few scattered long shots. We see the anger and fear on characters faces and it makes the whole thing unbearable at points. I was shaking and willing him to stop. As unbearable as the film can be, it is also beautiful as we see the countryside of Virginia which makes the violence all the more awful.
I have rambled enough. I saw this as the first of a double-bill with The Wind Rises. I found the film a heart jolting affair and I felt so much tension following Dwight as I experienced some of the terror he went through. Furthermore, the film got me to think about violence and the way it is consumed. I was glad when it was over and consider the film one of the most compelling this year.