Blue Ruin: Revenge, Reversal and Big Bushy Beards

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Revenge movies aren’t something I think are really going to go out of style. Oh sure, superhero movies will probably eventually drop in popularity, and the heyday of Westerns is unarguably over, but I don’t think people will ever really get tired of movies where one guy (or gal) sets about killing another guy (or gal) for making them drop their ice cream or killing their parents or something. And as time goes on, people will find new and different ways to tell the revenge story, and last year’s Blue Ruin may be one of the most interesting spins on the old yarn in recent memory.

Macon Blair stars as Dwight, a homeless man (or eco-friendly hipster, could go either way with that beard) who learns that the man who killed his parents has been released from prison on a plea bargain and sets out with bloody vengeance in his mind. And here’s where things get interesting. *spoiler alert* He kills him. Yep, finds him in a bathroom, stabs him in the brain, and legs it outta there. Because more than as much as it is a revenge film, Blue Ruin is a post-revenge film. The really important kill happens towards the beginning, and the film is more concerned with the stuff that comes after.

Blue Ruin posterThis is just one of the ways that Blue Ruin turns the revenge thriller on its head, presenting the usual “pyramid of targets” in reverse order. Normally there’s a bunch of goons to go through before our hero reaches the big man at the top, the final boss if you will. But Dwight does things backwards, getting the big target first and spending the rest of the movie dodging his family and assorted underlings.

On a whole, reversal is really the name of Blue Ruin‘s game, and it’s really more of an anti-revenge movie than not. Not just in the fact that the violence of the film is never glamorized, but in the way the act of vengeance isn’t the film’s focus. Instead, Blue Ruin is more concerned with big, important stuff like the cyclical nature of violence and how nothing is ever really as black-and-white as we’d like it to be.

Blair himself further seems like a defiant reversal of the usual revenge thriller hero model. He’s no Charles Bronson or Rutger Hauer, all cold stares and grim determination. Dwight looks more like Bruce Banner, only made out of sweaty cookie dough, and spends most of the film with a look of terrified panic on his face, often surviving encounters only through luck and a keen sense of when to run the fuck away (which in these scenarios is always).

Of course, the film wouldn’t have worked if Blair hadn’t pulled off the role, which he not only pulls off but mounts on his wall above a perfectly appointed fireplace. He never once feels in control or confident about any of what he’s doing, and that would have been an easy thing to bungle, either coming off too dopey, too miserable or too scared. But Blair manages to strike the right balance, coming off as the right mixture of lost puppy dog and bullied high-schooler who’s had enough.

There isn’t a whole lot to the supporting cast, as Dwight himself is the focus throughout. His sister figures importantly into the first act, played effectively if a bit unremarkably by Amy Hargreaves. Towards the end, Devin Ratray also puts in an appearance as high school friend of Dwight’s and a former soldier, and similarly does well, but doesn’t stay around long enough to leave a massive impression.

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The real credit should go to writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier, who’s put his time behind the camera to good use. Blue Ruin magnificently shot, stark and beautiful in that distinctively American Indie way. It’s also rather gorgeously edited at times, especially during one traveling sequence that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen cut that way, despite the fact that the idea behind it is mind-bogglingly simple.

It isn’t hard to see Saulnier’s influences, and it would be easy to label the film a Coen Bros ripoff, or maybe riffing off someone like Jeff Nichols, but while Saulnier is definitely playing a familiar melody, the tune is all his own, a wonderful mix of dark humor, bleak hopelessness and fantastically maintained tension. This guy’s going places, mark my words.

And really, there isn’t that much else to say about Blue Ruin. It’s magnificently shot and edited, anchored by a very strong central performance and keeps the viewer enraptured with well maintained tension and enough thematic reversals to basically make it a deconstructionist work. It isn’t the kind of film you can talk too extensively about, besides to say that it’s just really, really damn good. Viewers looking for a Liam Neeson style revenge action fest, or something like that new Keanu Reeves thing (which looks hilarious, by the way) probably won’t get much out of Blue Ruin. But those looking for something a little deeper, a little more substantive, should definitely check it out.

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