A revenge film with buckshot for a heart, Blue Ruin takes slow burn to another level. Director Jeremy Saulnier’s sophomore effort focuses on an unassuming vagrant living off the grid near coastal Virginia. Cloaked in a burly beard, Dwight (Macon Blair) moves invisibly alongside normal society, never rousing any attention despite breaking into random suburban houses to bathe. That is, until he receives news that the criminal responsible for murdering his parents will be released from prison after a decade of incarceration, initiating an impetuous journey of vengeance that gets bloody messy.
Dwight’s near-lobotomized appearance only becomes more apparent when he shaves and dons suitable attire. Just because we can see his face doesn’t mean we can read his mind any better. Blue Ruin is a deceptively angry film in this regard, mimicking its lead character’s quiet demeanor and frantic desperation until sudden violence interrupts with striking force.
To its credit, the film respects the finality of death. After a rifle round punctures a vital body part of one nefarious character, the shooter tells a distraught Dwight the bitter truth: “That’s what bullets do.”
Blue Ruin is a nasty piece of work, but part of its appeal relates to how expertly Saulnier draws out tension and suspense. Scenes creep along at a measured pace, extending time in order to flesh out the near-suffocating sense of dread that permeates the film. We get to watch every step of Dwight’s clumsy, panicked actions, which often turn bad situations far worse. Most involve standoffs with the Cleland clan, whose oldest son was convicted of the crime that’s inspired such hatred in Dwight. The all-consuming nature of old-fashioned feuds becomes apparent. It’s a phenomenon that gobbles up multiple family members in a matter of seconds.
Pain has become a fact of life for both Dwight and his estranged sister, who’s trying to raise two children despite the trauma of her parents’ murder still burning deep in her gut. Emotionally crippled, dented and punctured, these siblings are human versions of Dwight’s beaten-up old blue Pontiac, a pulverized but working vehicle that’s riddled with bullet holes and faded by the sun. These people may still be moving forward in life, but the wear and tear is apparent from the second you see them.
While Saulnier’s script lacks emotional resonance, it’s far more concerned with crafting a rigorous cinematic landscape based on theme. Blue Ruin posits a social ecosystem where murder is a private affair, beholden to warring factions operating out of sight of the regular world. When Dwight questions one of the Cleland boys about why the man didn’t call the police after one of his own was killed, he says calmly, “Keepin’ it in-house.” It’s an eerie motif that closes the film as well, with the image of a jogger calmly running by an arrow stuck in the grass. Earlier in the film, it was shot right at Dwight’s throat.
The rural-rage saga didn’t begin with Blue Ruin; films like 1955’s The Phenix City Story, 1977’s Rolling Thunder and 2007’s Shotgun Stories prove it to be a long-lasting subgenre. Each explores the rapidly escalating anger that can be seamlessly passed from generation to generation. Blue Ruin is unique in that the collective animosity has already been simmering for nearly two decades, left to rot inside every character. The rest is human nature.
Blue Ruin—which opens Friday, May 2 at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas—is not an especially daring revenge film, but it’s often thrilling. Saulnier understands that not all vigilante characters share the same motivations. Some people think that by pulling the trigger, their problems will be solved; other lost souls, riddled with unbearable fury, just want to see the other guy bleed.