“A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance.” There are two sentences that make up the brief ‘storyline’ section on Blue Ruin‘s imdb page. That’s the first of them. And it kind of misrepresents a film that has already had a share of misrepresentation in the run up to its release.
The film, directed by Jeremy Saulnier, is being touted as a Coens-esque crime drama. And while that is true to a degree, it’s useful to realise which aspects of the Coens’ work apply here. Certainly the movies which stand out most keenly as reference points are Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men, but it’s the economical quietude that those films possessed that Blue Ruin attunes itself to, and not particularly (as has been commented elsewhere) the wit or wordplay that the Coens (or, in No Country‘s case, even Cormac McCarthy) are known for. Saulnier’s movie doesn’t trade much in comedy, aside from the kind cruelly revealed by time.
The film has also been marketed principally on the back of two distinctly different trailers. The first teaser trailer evoked a beguiling air of mystery, while the second reaffirmed the hard-boiled thriller promise made by the eager press clippings. The tonal shift between these trailers leaves a question mark over the movie for a first-time audience. What are they going to get?
And so to the film itself, and that cropping from imdb above. Blue Ruin‘s central character is Dwight (Macon Blair), a man whose life is not exactly ‘turned upside down’ by an act of vengeance as it is wholly focused around it. That ‘quiet life’ spoken of is essentially that of a bum, living out of a rusting car, eating out of bins, only occasionally bathing thanks to the advantages of a spot of B&E. As we learn the particulars of his grudge against a man named Wade, newly released from prison, we get the sense of a man who has purposefully placed his life on hold until this one opportunity to seek justice outside of the law became available.
It’s surprising – and entertaining – to discover that Dwight’s plan for vengeance against Wade is based mainly on happenstance and the benefits of opportunism. There is no grand plan, merely a dreaded focus on the end result; Wade’s ugly death. The possible aftermath of this event is something which Dwight only seems to consider further down the road, when too many steps have already been taken. So Blue Ruin shows how one man’s conviction for murderous justice can warp his perspective on the wider ramifications. Seeing red, Dwight strives to act, but as the movies have frequently shown us, vengeance is a cycle – one that’s hard to break out of.
Blue Ruin is not Saulnier’s first film, but it does have the feel of a confident debut. That of a focused statement-of-intent, one which acknowledges the influences of idolised filmmakers, but isn’t wholly beholden to them. What is apparent from the very beginning is that Saulnier knows what he is doing. The opening quarter of an hour or so of the film is patiently paced and (like the remainder) exceptionally well put together. His camera moves are illuminating without being showy. Dialogue throughout is minimal. He has the technical skill to convey his tale without the need to fall back on traded dialogue and he credits the audience enough intelligence to fill in the blanks where needed.
Nevertheless the film really steps into gear once the inevitable violence begins. As Dwight finds himself striving to look in all directions at once – both forward down the road for what he needs to do, and back behind him for the pursuing consequences – the story settles into a pleasing tempo of suspense and intrigue. Dwight’s survival will only ever be as good as his resourcefulness. It is in this most satisfying central stretch that Blue Ruin gambles to be thought of alongside the Coens’ best and bloodiest.
Macon Blair holds the film together well as Dwight, possessing a believable everyman quality, despite the dime novel plot trappings. The only particularly familiar face here is Devin Ratray’s (memorable recently from Nebraska, though once upon a time better known for the Home Alone movies). His appearance in the film’s second half as Ben – a fortuitous friend to Dwight -is something of a blessing, allowing the film both a pit stop and giving Blair someone to chew some words over with. If there is much comedy to be had its to be found in the interactions between these two.
Blue Ruin is a strange creature because it’s biggest positives also form part of it’s most nagging flaw – originality. Saulnier’s film admirably strives for new angles on old plot devices; looking for logic, accepting and using simple human ineptitude, realising that half of anything is luck. And while Saulnier’s eye makes his take on a number of these things refreshing, he is still working with an overly familiar set of tools.
Vengeance begets vengeance. Where does it end? Can it end? Is it just, or can it ever be? These are questions asked, answered and discussed countless times in cinema throughout the years, particular in American cinema, even more particularly by the Western. Blue Ruin may trade the Western’s desert vistas for the verdant woods of Virginia, but it can’t hide the exposed blueprints of its origins. With this in mind, Blue Ruin‘s conclusion becomes inevitable. It may have been nice to have been surprised.