Occasionally, the national news will carry stories about a horrific local murder that took place in some part of the country where we don’t live. And because it happened somewhere else, possibly far away from any major cities, maybe we make assumptions about the sorts of people who live there—negative assumptions. We stop seeing these individuals as being like us—instead, we view them as some kind of weird “other.” And so we turn off our empathy and count our blessings that we don’t live wherever “there” is.
What’s so striking about Blue Ruin is how writer-director Jeremy Saulnier both plays into those dismissive assumptions while also subverting them. His dark revenge tale flaunts its small-town strangeness, but it also keeps a sharp eye on the human beings at the story’s center. Blue Ruin may occasionally be midnight-movie lurid, but not at the expense of deeper questions about vengeance’s diminishing returns.
When we first meet Dwight (Macon Blair), he’s a bearded homeless man. Dwight seems disheveled and purposeless—maybe even mentally ill—but he soon learns that Will Cleland (David W. Thompson), a convicted murderer, has been released from prison. Promptly, Dwight travels to his Virginia childhood home to see Cleland, though not to welcome him back. As we quickly realize, it was Dwight’s parents whom Cleland killed, and he’s not willing to forgive the man even though he’s served his time.
In a different movie, Dwight’s journey to avenge his parents’ death would be the focal point. But in Blue Ruin, that business is dispensed with quickly: Dwight kills the guy in a bathroom nearby where Cleland’s family is holding a reunion party.
After that jarring opening, Saulnier (who also served as cinematographer) continues to upset our expectations. Done with his brutal deed, Dwight shaves off his beard and cleans up, revealing himself not to be the unhinged bum we first met but, rather, a relatively mild-mannered, doughy man who must now visit his estranged sister, Sam (Amy Hargreaves), to let her know what’s happened. Plus, he has to warn her: She and her kids need to leave town since Cleland’s kin (including Kevin Kolack and Eve Plumb) will be looking for Dwight, putting into motion a new cycle of violence and retribution.
There’s a hint of the Coen brothers’ love for regional oddity in Blue Ruin, but Saulnier’s spirit is perhaps closer to that of Jeff Nichols, the writer-director of superb small-town dramas like Mud and Take Shelter. In temperament, Blue Ruin calls to mind Nichols’ Shotgun Stories, which also examined how a personal feud escalates into bloodshed. It’s a fine line that Saulnier walks, catering to the B-movie crowd with intelligence and feeling. Shocking bloody violence and tense suspense sequences are delivered with grindhouse precision, but because Blue Ruin initially throws us off by confounding our assumptions of who Dwight is, we’re compelled to look closer at all the movie’s characters, wondering what sides of themselves they’re also concealing.
The performances have a stripped-down rawness appropriate to the subject matter. But as exhibited by Blair, there’s also a pokerfaced slyness to the proceedings. As with the Coens’ thrillers, Blue Ruin isn’t so much about how bad things happen but, rather, how bad things are done in hopelessly imperfect ways. Blair’s Dwight is a profoundly ordinary guy, despite his surprising talent for killing, and so his attempts to stay a step ahead of the well-armed Clelands are fraught with screw-ups that border on the darkly humorous. (If nothing else, Blue Ruin will instill in viewers a healthy respect for how scary arrows are.)
Although the movie is deadly serious, Blair’s comically hangdog face heightens the absurdity of the back-and-forth altercations between Dwight and his pursuers. We never forget that these are regular people meting out this punishment against one another. That’s what makes the film so gripping—and also strangely relatable. Unexpectedly for Dwight, Blue Ruin twists from a revenge tale into a story of empathy—one in which even he comes to regard the backwoods Clelands in a new light. Amidst the rising body count, Saulnier has crafted a rather sneaky treatise on seeing past preconceived notions to really understand other people. All you have to do is look.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidné Anderson
Release Date: Screening at AFI Fest 2013 in the American Independents? section