Review: Blue Ruin (2013)

Most revenge thrillers build up to the climactic moment of vengeance, but Blue Ruin gets to that point early on and examines what happens after cathartic blood has been spilled. Its scope is tightly focused. It doesn’t feature any subplots or follow any characters other than our agent of vengeance, Dwight (Macon Blair). It’s quiet and provocative without being explicit. Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier makes it perfectly clear he understands revenge thriller conventions and plays with those conventions whenever he can, even if the film’s thematic preoccupations are no deeper than any other postmodern revenge thriller.

When the film opens the protagonist Dwight is living out of a rundown car, foraging food from the dumpsters of the nearby carnival. He has a shaggy beard and his hair is a knotted, greasy mess. A friendly police officer wakes him in his car one day and informs him that Wade Cleland Jr., the man who killed his parents, is getting out of prison. That information sets Dwight on a path of vengeance. He sends his sister a postcard telling her of his plans and sets out to kill the man when he’s released.

Dwight succeeds in that mission about 15 minutes into the film. He kills Wade Jr. with a fillet knife in the bathroom of a bar, driving the knife into the man’s temple. Dwight flees and the Clelands inevitably retaliate, aiming to kill Dwight and harm his remaining family. Blue Ruin is set in Virginia and its characters hold to antiquated notions of blood feuds familiar to Southern storytelling. I was reminded of Jeff Nichols’s Shotgun Stories in how this film shows that blood begets blood, that each action of violence escalates and that the inevitable result of any feud is the death of both families in their entirety.

Much of Blue Ruin’s tension is built around watching Dwight deal with this inevitable violence. Dwight is not the typical hero of a revenge thriller. Macon Blair is no Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. He’s flabby and his face is unassuming. He has large eyes that give him a doe-like quality. Dwight is always questioning whether he has what it takes to kill the Clelands, even after he has succeeding in killing Wade Jr. Dwight knows he’s just one homeless man fighting against an entire family. He assumes his death is inevitable. But he’s also scrappy and intuitive. When the Clelands come to retaliate at his sister’s house, he uses a running faucet to lure them upstairs before fleeing out back and stealing their car.

Saulnier, who also acts as the film’s cinematographer, opts to keep the camera always moving. Even in scenes where Dwight stays still—which is rare as he’s constantly on the prowl, watching and waiting for a Cleland to do him harm—the camera will dolly in slowly or track perpendicular to the action. The subtle movement subconsciously keeps the viewer on edge. It almost invisibly escalates tension. It's a trick perfected by the Coen Brothers.

This makes sense as Saulnier is clearly a disciple of the Coens. Blue Ruin is largely modeled after Blood Simple in how it plays with thriller conventions and features protagonists out of depth with the depravity of their actions. There’s even a scene where Dwight visits a pharmacy after suffering an arrow wound and goes about repairing the wound himself like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Of course, Dwight is no Chigurh, so he’s not capable of performing minor surgery. He’s just smart enough to realize he ought to stumble over to the emergency clinic before he faints.

It’s moments like this that make Blue Ruin arresting and quietly humourous. Dwight is a peculiar protagonist and the pleasure of this film is witnessing him think his way through the deadly situation at hand. Of course, Blue Ruin also has to show that vengeance leaves no one unscathed, a familiar point for any morally muddy revenge thriller. But it’s not the general premise of Blue Ruin that makes the film worthwhile. It’s the film’s attention to detail and minute exploration of the subject. It succeeds in its specifics, even if it’s ultimately just another well-told revenge story.

7 out of 10

Blue Ruin (USA/France)

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier; starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, and Kevin Kolack.