Everything in the opening scenes of Jeremy Saulnier’s nerve-wracking revenge drama Blue Ruin is the color of a bruise, from the ocean to the bullet-hole-pocked 1996 Pontiac Bonneville that homeless near-mute Dwight (Macon Blair) calls home. It’s fitting. Dwight has never overcome the pain of his parents’ murder when he was a boy. He traces his daily struggles — breaking into homes to bathe, digging through trash at the amusement park for old hamburgers, sleeping under a battered blue tarp — back to their death. (His sister is a happy suburban mom, so we suspect his brain must have already been on the brink.) On the day a local cop informs him that the murderer, Wade Cleland (Sandy Barnett), will be released from prison, Dwight reconnects the car’s battery and drives south to kill him.
Immediately, writer-director Saulnier pressures us to root for the premeditated murder of a man we’ve never met for a crime that isn’t fully revealed until the second act. He teases out information, and we let him, in part because the bearded, scrawny Dwight has the messianic aura of a victim born to suffer for other’s sins. And as the phenomenal Blair plays him, our hero/slayer is neither magnetic nor memorable. By contrast, he’s used to people pretending he’s invisible, and pads, ghostlike, after his prey.
Saulnier shot Blue Ruin for $38,000, much of it from Kickstarter donations. His lead is his best friend from sixth grade; a centerpiece showdown takes place in his mother’s house. There’s so little dialogue it’s as though Saulnier feared he’d have to pay $1 a word. But the film looks like $1 million and plays like gangbusters. (It won the 2013 FIPRESCI critics’ prize at Cannes.) Besides a slow, regenerative stretch before the climax designed to give both Dwight and the audience a chance to catch our breaths, it’s lip-bitingly tense, not just because of what Dwight aims to do, but because we can’t quite believe that this untrained wannabe killer can actually get it done.
As an action film — which in small bursts it is — Blue Ruin is disquieting and raw, like Commando turned inside out. We can’t identify with the Schwarzeneggers and Diesels of revenge cinema, those athletes equally handy with a gun and a bad quip. The near-silent Blair also seems alien from us. When he shaves his beard to blend in, he looks even stranger: Imagine Tim Curry raised by a pack of mice. But on the scale between him and Arnie, most viewers are probably more like Dwight than we’d prefer to admit. He has no gadgets, no guns, not even a plan. He’s instinctual and unprepared. It’s terrifying to watch him try to kill because we know we couldn’t do better ourselves, and terrifying to realize how abnormal “normal” fight scenes are. What if all movie brawls looked less like the bastard child of a chopped salad and the ballet, and more like the desperate flailings of real life? Would we still watch the screen and dream, “I wish I could do that”? Would we even want to?
Slowly, Saulnier gets around to Blue Ruin‘s unglamorous message: that revenge is inglorious and sad. Dwight punishes and gets punished. He is shot by arrows, drools with pain, and finds himself slathered in blood, only some of it his own. And then we realize that his battle with Wade is just another skirmish in a family feud that’s bigger than both of them, as though modern life is still just a half-step ahead of the Hatfields and McCoys. The culture assures us that those families enjoyed the fight. Did all of them? What if there was a son like Dwight who was fragile and exhausted, or a daughter like his sister (Amy Hargreaves) who prefers to lock those memories in a box and move away? When he visits to tell her he’s broken the peace, she moans, “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not; you’re weak.”
The Cleland clan look like Hatfield-esque rednecks, which gives us permission to attack. Hillbilly yokels have made life hard on protagonists ever since Deliverance told a city slicker to squeal like a pig. But as Dwight stalks their family, we get glimpses of their own humanity and realize that Saulnier is using our kneejerk snobbery against us like a shiv. We’re still rooting for Dwight, but mainly to figure out how to restore peace. The emergent villain is a gun nut (Devin Ratray, one of the goonish cousins from Nebraska) with little loyalty for keeping anyone alive. When Dwight asks him for help, he’s overjoyed to pack a goodie bag of ammunition. He gets a vicarious thrill from murder. So do we — we’ve bought our tickets, after all — but boy, does Saulnier make us pay double.