Blue Ruin operates on a different sort of tension than we usually get at the movies. There are few familiar suspense techniques; no predictable plot patterns. Often a seemingly insignificant detail determines the action. It’s a riveting thriller that seems to be directed by the haphazard whims of the wind.
The writer and director, in fact, is Jeremy Saulnier. A cinematographer before he turned to directing, Saulnier has first and foremost crafted a gorgeous film, full of imposing skies and regretful shadows. There’s an establishing shot of a carnival at night – with a glowing walkway at the bottom of the screen, the dark facade of a building as a band across the middle and then a bright ride spinning above – that’s both mesmerizing and evocative of the movie’s theme: whatever merriment life might bring, there’s also a black strip running straight down the middle.
For Dwight (Macon Blair), that black strip is the murder of his parents. In the years since the crime, Dwight has been living out of a beat-up car in an almost monk-like existence. The opening section observes, with great care, the hard work of being homeless: finding places to bathe, scrounging for meals, keeping one step ahead of the police. It isn’t until Dwight learns that his parents’ murderer is being released on parole that he re-enters society, this time on an ill-advised revenge mission.
Blue Ruin is a more mournful take on the inept criminal genre.
Though there are traces of the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple here and there, especially in the dollops of black humor, Blue Ruin is a more mournful take on the inept criminal genre. As Dwight, given a panicky air by Blair, repeatedly fumbles his attempts at vengeance (failing to obtain a gun, misplacing his car keys) the moments play less as comedy than as a rueful repudiation of the adage that revenge is sweet.
In fact, rather than enacting justice, Dwight’s actions provoke an all-out family feud. (In this sense, Blue Ruin brought to mind Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories.) If Dwight was in over his head at the beginning, he soon becomes engulfed in mayhem.
Yet in the unexpected world that Saulnier has created, the very capriciousness that seemed to doom him at the start begins to work in his favor. And it’s when Dwight has managed to obtain some level of control that the full weight of his actions can be felt. As a character tells him midway through, “The one with the gun gets to tell the truth.” In Blue Ruin, both guns and the truth are difficult to bear.