Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, and Kevin Kolack
Opening: In select theaters and On Demand May 5 2014
The Plot: A homeless man living in his car learns that the murderer who killed his parents 20 years before has gotten an early release from prison based on a technicality. Not one to wait around till his enemy dies of natural causes the transient decides to take matters into his own hands, setting off a violent chain of events there may be no coming back from.
The Film: I have never been a fan of the word trope. When doing a write-up on a movie I do everything in my power to avoid using it. I don’t like trope. I loathe trope. Trope is a snobby word. It’s a muggy word. And this business of criticizing is a snobby, muggy business anyway – why heap any further pretension on the process?
In short, saying that a film plays on old genre tropes is a lethargic way for a critic to take a piddle on a film while keeping their shoes dry.
Enter Blue Ruin. A film festival darling toting one of the industry’s oldest themes… revenge. A trope nest if ever a thing existed. Blue Ruin manages, for the most part, to circumvent the expectations of the genre. It isn’t as energetic as something like, say, Kill Bill. In fact, if David Attenborough were to shoot one of his nature documentaries about a human being’s desire to count coup upon his enemies, it would look something like Blue Ruin. We would find homo sapien in his natural habitat – in this movie’s case a beat-to-sh*t blue Pontiac – shaggy, haggard, and dirty, subsisting off of fairground garbage and pain. A simple beast who receives a call to action when an old familial enemy is freed early from prison.
But how will homo sapien arm himself for the hunt on 12 dollars of aluminum can recycling profits? And considering the 20+ years of prison yard weight pile workouts his foe has engaged in, how will our hero even hope to prevail in a match to the death?
The answers are, of course, the greatness inherent to Blue Ruin. Or at least the opening half of the the film. Jeremy Saulnier’s movie is more about the milieu and minutia of revenge, not as theater, but as a practicality. The horror of the act is in how impromptu it plays out.
A prime example of Saulnier’s drive to anchor the film in the moment to moment reality of retribution is when Dwight (our vagrant avenger) busts the window out of a pickup truck parked in front of a honky-tonk, and he swipes a gun case out of the vehicle and flees the scene of the crime. Only later does he discover that his heisted firearm has a trigger lock shackled to it, and no amount of beating on it is going to make this gun a resource on his bloody quest for revenge. In a theater packed with libertines and beatniks posing as film journalists you can almost hear the whimpers of discontent that for once in a film we have a responsible gun owner – and gawdamnit if he isn’t impeding our desire for a quick and violent reckoning.
Of course the bloodletting in Blue Ruin isn’t subtle – the violence in this film packs a mighty wallop – neither is the message. It’s a graphic dissection of returning evil to evil, and how the act bleeds both parties dry – one of plasma, one of soul. Where things get a bit wobbly narrative-wise is the discovery of the initial crime that kicked off this crash course in retribution.
Macon Blair’s Dwight is well cast as the bitter shell. He may have the perpetual gaze of a doe caught in the headlights, but he doesn’t have to sell his anger by overplaying his hand. We know how troubled and hurt this guy is simply by how much blood his clothes end up soaked in. What is a tougher sell is that these two fractions ever came into contention in the first place.
Jeremy Saulnier smartly avoids the trap (or is that trope?) of using flashbacks, and we’re left to discover the crime that kicked off these stomach-churning events only after we visually participate in the events themselves. Crime and punishment plays out much more harrowing when we’re light on the details of the initial crime, but all in during the punishment phase. When the veneer is lifted things become less satisfying. The enemies of Dwight aren’t anything special after all. They’re two dimensional beings. To use a maligned phrase, they’re tropes. Racist, gun-loving drones stuck in a terminal tail-spin. The origins of how Dwight’s family and their family crossed paths 20 years before seems highly unlikely.
One wishes Jeremy Saulnier had added the same level of dimension and detail to the antagonists of his movie as he added to the process of collecting the courage and the tools to take them down with.
The Verdict: After a successful first half it’s kind of tragic that a film as emotionally manipulative and enthralling as Blue Ruin is runs out of inspiration, and sort of coasts to a sanguine and pseudo-satisfying conclusion. For a thrilling 45 minutes it seemed like Blue Ruin wasn’t going to settle for being like any other revenge film we’ve seen in the genre, and then abruptly it plops itself down in a barcalounger, unbuttons the top three buttons of its pants to let its beer gut flop out, and settles entirely. Still… a worthwhile endeavor and a worthwhile watch.