Blue Ruin (2014)

Directed By: Jeremy Saulnier
Written By: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair
  Devin Ratray
  Amy Hargreaves
Blue Ruin

Novice director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, which is also adapted from his self-penned screenplay, seems at first glance to be a standard, run of the mill revenge thriller. Newcomer Macon Blair, Saulnier’s own high school buddy, begins the film sporting a scraggly beard of which Daniel Bryan would be proud, before delivering some Old Testament vengeance on the man he believes killed his parents. Then, instead of becoming the bloodthirsty madman he is expected to be, he morphs into an even meeker, quieter version of himself, terrified of the chain of events he’s set off. This, and many other misdirects, is why Blue Ruin is one of the most challenging, original and standout pieces of filmmaking in this subgenre to date – and it doesn’t pull any punches, either.

Blair’s Dwight begins the film a broken man, homeless, alone and scrounging for food and showers wherever he can. Upon hearing that his parents’ killer has been released from prison, he springs into action, acquiring a weapon and doing away with the man in viciously bloody fashion in a dingy pub toilet – the first of many gory sequences which punctuate the film’s deliberately slow, tense narrative flow. Satisfied that justice has been served, Dwight cleans himself up and sets out to reconnect with his sister, completely unaware that he’s set a terrifying sequence of events into motion, by attracting the attention of his victim’s bloodthirsty, hooligan family.

Although it clocks in at less than two hours, Blue Ruin feels much longer than it is, in spite of an utter lack of exposition, which adds to the tragic plight of its central character. Dwight is not the typical revenge-seeker to whom we’ve become accustomed. He’s pathetic, cowardly and desperate. He has absolutely no idea what he’s doing, at one point even requiring shooting lessons from an old high school friend because he’s never actually used a gun before. In spite of his shortcomings, however, Dwight is an incredibly sympathetic protagonist, thanks in large part to a stunning central performance from virtual unknown Blair, who injects his anti-hero with a sense of urgency, hopelessness and desperation with which it is all too easy to identify.

Supporting characters are few and far between, but Amy Hargreaves does well in her small role as his long-suffering sister, and Devin Ratray provides a welcome respite from the downbeat tone as Dwight’s likeable, kind old friend who shows up at just the right moment. Their relationships, which are fully fleshed out and seeped in history, give the story some much-needed heart, and they feel utterly real.

Considering this is the writer/director’s second feature, following the entertaining, yet disjointed Murder Party, the amount of skill on show – from everything to the stunning, lovingly-shot cinematography of Saulnier’s native Virginia, to the blackly comic script and gut-wrenching moments of violence – is truly remarkable, and showcases his burgeoning talent. Saulnier already feels like an old reliable, a master of suspense and tension, who understands the subtle nuances of familial relationships and the desperate lengths otherwise normal people go to in order to right a wrong. Comparisons to the Coen brothers are unavoidable, given the subject matter and tone, but they are lazy and do a disservice to the originality and strength of this incredible film, which belongs to Saulnier and Blair.

Where most filmmakers feel the need to fill in the gaps with pages and pages of dialogue, Saulnier revels in the silences, allowing the material to speak for itself as the tension is ratcheted up to oxygen-stripping levels of unease. Even so, the film has a lot to say about violence and the nature of revenge. The ending, in particular, could’ve easily succumbed to genre conventions but it is bravely harsh, cementing the fact that this is a story rooted in the bitterness of reality. The overly-hyped sequences of grisly violence add to this idea, with one particular sequence, involving Dwight’s foiled attempts to remove an arrow from his leg, almost played for laughs as it reveals just how utterly shambolic the protagonist is at sorting out the mess he has created.

A dark, blackly comic revenge thriller that utilises elements of horror and family drama, and is equal parts gory, poignant and moving, Blue Ruin is an incredibly assured, remarkably poised, understated piece of work from newcomer Jeremy Saulnier, which showcases a stunning central performance from virtual unknown Macon Blair, and will hopefully find the audience it deserves, on DVD. Seek it out immediately.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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