Film Review | Blue Ruin

Effortlessly straddling both arthouse and mainstream cinema, this revenge-thriller may talk like other examples of the genre, but it walks to its own atmospheric, melancholy beat.

Thicker than water: Newcomer Macon Blair impresses as the vengeful – but incompetent – Dwight Evans in this soon-to-be-cult revenge thriller
Thicker than water: Newcomer Macon Blair impresses as the vengeful – but incompetent – Dwight Evans in this soon-to-be-cult revenge thriller

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but what if you’re not nearly cold enough to live up to that basic criterion? Blue Ruin lends a fresh twist to the revenge thriller tradition by resisting the urge to make its protagonist into an unstoppable force of righteous vengeance.

Instead, our man, Dwight Evans (played by newcomer Macon Blair) is a grieving but otherwise normal man whose thirst for revenge may be very palpable indeed, but whose combat experience is limited at best.

This leads to situations that are both comical and genuinely frightening, with director Jeremy Saulnier stripping the story down to its bare essentials and telling it with an eye towards realism.

But its overall contours are generic; which is comforting and frustrating at the same time.

Dwight (Blair) has taken to sleeping rough it seems – we first meet him while he’s taking a bath in a house we soon discover isn’t his. Hearing the door, he makes a quick dash for the window and escapes in his car. The next morning, a concerned police officer lets him in on some information that jolts him out of his vagrant cocoon: the man who murdered his parents will be getting released that week.

Armed with a newfound sense of purpose and very little else, Dwight sets about amassing information about his target, Wade Cleland, and his family’s whereabouts. He also sets about amassing weaponry… before realising that life, sadly, is not like the movies on this count… not even close.

 

There’s something purple and melodramatic about the film’s title – it’s a catchy but oblique indicator of what actually goes on in the film, the ‘blue’ a too-easy metaphor for dredging sadness.

Thankfully, however, this is the only real jolt of pretentiousness to mar Saulnier’s film – pretentiousness being a too-easy trap for a beginning filmmaker to make, especially one operating with Saulnier’s maverick approach (debuting in Cannes, Blue Ruin was partly crowd-funded – that’s how indie it is, baby).

In fact, the film gets most of its mileage out of resisting glamour and show-offy flourishes. A lot of this is down to Macon Blair’s subdued performance, which makes him endearing at first, but ultimately works to cultivate a genuine creepiness in the character. You’re meant to mistake him for a vagrant at the beginning, and you will.

His mottled beard is almost like a Cronenbergian creature: latching on to his face and – we gradually realise – serving to hide his vulnerability. It’s probably the most economical use of a cosmetic set piece in recent years. It makes him look like a volatile vagrant – just the kind of unhinged killing machines whose type the film is playing directly against.

That it’s an enduring sub-genre is unquestionable: as if to take Blue Ruin’s innovative spin to task, Denzel Washington will be back on our screens as ‘The Equalizer’ soon – a TV series adaptation which appears adamant to slavishly stick to the revenge-thriller book.

But however much Saulnier strives for innovation, however much the details of the thing feel fresh, the over-aching beats of the plot match their mainstream counterparts, for better or for worse.

I’m inclined to say ‘for better’ since this means the audience gets some emotional payoff – the finely-tuned melancholy atmosphere leading to some bona fide catharsis at the end too. But it’s sad that Saulnier plays it safe with his secondary characters too. Given that it’s a solo affair for most of its running time, the fact that we’re given standard issue hillbilly antagonists at the end feels like a bit of a cheat.

If there’s a case for an actor’s eyes carrying a film, this is it. Blair’s mournful orbs cut through even his wet, tangled beard. It’s probably thanks to them that the film can go on for so long without any dialogue. They tell us all we need to know about Dwight’s ambivalent mix of anger and sadness.

But the time-capsule value of the film is down to its treatment of violence. Most revenge thrillers work their audiences into a lather to expect bursts of violence: they are treats at the end of a gritty road – finally, some retribution for the hero’s suffering, we are led to think, as we revel in the bursting – and crackling – flesh on display.

To wit: manually removing an arrow lodged in your thigh is probably not a good idea. Despite what the likes of Denzel Washington have led you believe. 

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