Released in early 2014, Jeremy Saulnier’s second film Blue Ruin was a tight, suspenseful, violent, darkly humorous revenge thriller, and one of the best American independent films of the year.
The film’s very strong opening section is light on dialogue but heavy with detail introducing Dwight (Macon Blair) a homeless man living on a Delaware beach. The film invites us into a solitary world as he scavenges food from trash bags and bathes in empty beach homes (a detail that neatly establishes that he can both break into a house and escape from a tight spot, something that will be useful later). By withholding the information and exposition normally imparted in dialogue, Saulnier forces us to try and build a narrative of how this young man has come to drop out of society. We see that Dwight is resourceful, street smart and has a library of books stashed in his makeshift home.
A visit from a concerned police officer supplies the first concrete details of his past, Dwight is informed of the imminent release from prison of a convicted murderer with whom he has a tragic connection (it is a legal requirement to inform victims of crime of the release of the perpetrator). This news motivates a change in Dwight as if he has awoken from a semi-slumber. He takes his wreck of a car (possibly the ‘Blue Ruin’ of the title, although that could easily apply to the film’s overarching theme) onto the road and returns to his family home in rural Virginia with a mind that is squirming like a toad.
Blue Ruin’s bold and stark opening is key to the its success. Rather than in an early info-dump Dwight’s back-story is gradually drip fed to us over the full running time. Saulnier and actor Macon Blair take time to get the audience firmly in Dwight’s corner before revealing some uncomfortable truths. This could easily have been a film starring someone like Jason Statham, it would have been completely different in tone and effect, but it could have been a serviceable Death Wish style action revenge thriller. Blair is very far from being a traditional action hero. The actor is blessed with expressive eyes with a hound-like pleading quality. Initially the character is hirsute and dishevelled, but the anguish and hurt in his eyes pull you into empathy for the character. This is crucial, as early in the film Dwight does something quite awful. With a weaker or colder actor in the role it is an act that could have cut off the audience’s sympathy.
The film is beautifully balanced with none of the self reflexive elements that indicate a filmmaker who feels themselves above genre. In fact Blue Ruin is the sort of quality, artistically-inclined B picture that is as rare as fairy dust in today’s cinema. After the austere opening, the pace picks up and the Saulnier introduces a rich seam of dark comedy. This is done so gradually that when it first appears one’s initial reaction is a vague discomfort. If you are as invested in Dwight’s plight as I was by this point in the movie, you will also find yourself wondering if the humour is intentional, and whether you should be finding the situation funny at all. It is a risky move; if the delectate weighting of elements was off-kilter this could have killed the film. It isn’t and it doesn’t. In fact it is this aspect of the picture that most invites (entirely warranted) comparison to the Coen Brother’s classic Blood Simple.
As more and more dialogue enters the film, the quality of the writing really shines. There is a brilliant scene between Dwight and one of the film’s ostensible villains that is unexpectedly hilarious and both punctures and plays up the traditional dumb redneck stereotype (props to actor Kevin Kolack for making a small part extremely memorable). Also of note is actor Devin Ratray who appears as an old school friend Dwight looks up for assistance in his less than roaring semi-rampage of revenge. Dwight and Ben’s scenes together are both funny and unexpectedly moving.
Despite the BBFC 15 certificate, this is a very bloody and violent film. While never especially gratuitous it does have its share of cheap thrills. One sequence of DIY triage surgery had me absolutely squirming in my seat. Although it is the sort of thing routinely endured with breeze-block like stoicism by eighties action figures, Saulnier and Blair make it horribly real and relatable. On the director’s part this is done by unsparingly focusing on small painful details – a trick often lost on gore-hound filmmakers.
As if writing and directing an excellent film was not enough, Saulnier also photographed the movie. And he does a bang up job. Blue Ruin has a classic, seventies look. The cinematography is lovely, crisp and well lit. There is no distracting over-stylisation and film has a beautiful colour palate. There is an especially nice series of shots following Dwight’s car as it droves rural back roads in fog and drizzle. In fact the film is filled with such lyrical visual digressions from the narrative but they never break the mood or pace. If I have a criticism of the film, it is only that it perhaps does not quite land a final knockout punch, but otherwise it fights a technically exemplary fight.
This review was previously published on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/