Blue Ruin (2014)
90 min., rated R.
Out of the hands of the studio system and making quite the splash on the festival circuit at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, "Blue Ruin" is an American indie to be proud of, to be sure. At the helm of this meaty, highly charged revenge drama-cum-thriller, sophomore writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier (2007's "Murder Party") gives us a compact tale about vengeance as much as human frailty. Lean and rueful but also gripping, tautly conceived, and dramatically urgent, the film has a low budget and a grimy, down-and-dirty quality, but its clean storytelling has been ensured with special care, restraint (for the most part), and a ripe handling of hairy suspense. It's only as standard as its logline, but it's how and how impressively well Saulnier tells his story that makes "Blue Ruin" work.
When we first find Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), a dishelveled, bearded homeless man, he's in a bathtub. As it turns out, he's in a stranger's home and, when he hears the owners coming in the front door, jumps out of the bathroom window. Soon, he's eating out of the garbage at a nearby carnival and living out of his car on the beach. One morning, a police woman takes the meek Dwight to the station, not to arrest him but to inform him that "he"—Carl Cleland (Brent Werzner), the man suspected to have killed his parents—is being released from prison and that he might want some protection. In that case, Dwight gets ready, heading to Virginia to get payback for the injustice of his family being murdered and doing away with Carl right away. Dwight's life isn't a movie, though, so his revenge plan won't be going off without a hitch, especially when Carl's backwoods family (one of whom is played by Eve Plumb, a.k.a. Jan Brady) hears about it.
Fraught with a shroud of measured dread and realistic human fallibility, "Blue Ruin" may not have a ton of story to tell, but its tight focus and simplicity as a human-scaled revenge story are what make it so effective. Writer-director Saulnier sees no use for flashbacks or meandering subplots, and, in some respect, tramples on our expectations and old revenge-genre tropes by getting the first act of retribution done in its first half-hour whereas most genre representatives would end with it. The use of quiet waiting and intense bloodshed during Dwight's early attack on Carl in a tavern restroom is beautifully staged. So deceptively succinct for its 90 minutes, the film sticks with Dwight as our unlikely vigilante, earning our sympathy from the get-go, and it hits you with a bluntly powerful force even more so because of it. Reinforced by the director's strikingly accomplished and atmospheric cinematography, the terse first 40 minutes are such a clincher that it becomes somewhat unfortunate when our protagonist gets caught up in a few increasingly inexplicable and almost comedically inept actions.
First coming on screen looking like a hairy, bug-eyed Zach Galifianakis, relative unknown Macon Blair is gently sympathetic and emotionally exposed as Dwight, tangibly conveying the painful existence of a broken man and the vengeance in his still-soulful eyes. He's proactive but not prepared or equipped like a macho, quip-spouting vigilante; in fact, Dwight hardly knows what he's doing because he's just an average, everyday person. Still, Dwight is not about to leave what he started unfinished, no matter how many times he keeps failing. A rawly shattering Amy Hargreaves makes a lasting mark as Dwight's sister Sam ("I'd forgive you if you were crazy. But you're not. You're weak."), and Devin Ratray makes a convenient plot device—Dwight's old buddy Ben with a cache of guns—believable, especially when he delivers the line, "I know this is personal. That's how you'll fail. No speeches, no talking. You point the gun, you shoot the gun."
Despite a few narrative bumps that stretch plausibility for dramatic purposes, as well as a slight tonal discrepancy involving Dwight pulling an arrow out of his own bloodied leg, "Blue Ruin" is riveting stuff, a study in nitty-gritty tension, punctuated by silence and spurts of brutal violence, and the filmic rule of "showing over telling" right down to its unsparing finale. Dwight getting his revenge is a cathartic and inexorable journey, but inevitably, it will have a tragically grim end. There's also never the queasy, irresponsible feeling that Dwight's revenge is being shown as rah-rah wish-fulfillment glorification, as pacifists are given something to chew on. That sense of skillful execution over originality goes to show that Jeremy Saulnier is a filmmaker worth looking out for and seeing where this little movie will put him. Find it.