Blue Ruin, the Kickstarter-funded thriller from promising director Jeremy Saulnier, begins with a mostly wordless prologue in which bearded protagonist Dwight, played by Macon Blair, stalks down a target and carries out some knife-based vengeance as retribution for an as-yet unspecified crime.
It’s a taut beginning, and an intriguing one. We only really get to know Dwight in an excellent scene a little later, when he meets his sister (Amy Hargreaves) in a roadside diner. From that point on, the film’s narrative of revenge expands, and Dwight’s intentions become clearer: there is something in his past that has turned this apparently unassuming man into a cold hearted killer, albeit an amateur one.
As we move on, Saulnier brings in darkly comic elements, the most amusing of which is Dwight’s attempt to perform some Hollywood-style injury treatment on himself, which doesn’t go so well. It becomes clear that the police won’t be involved in this narrative; Dwight and his targets are going to have to resolve things between them, and that means violence. Enter Dwight’s old school chum and local gun nut Ben (Devin Ratray), who kits his friend out with the tools of vigilante justice. This leads to a hilarious scene in a field, in which Dwight’s attempts at interrogation go awry, and Ben delivers the film’s funniest and most acerbic line.
The cycle of violence is presented to us here as a choice that Dwight has made. This is what he’s doing, and we’re invited to watch it. Saulnier isn’t didactic when it comes to the film’s violence, (though he does skewer it with black comedy), and this is a refreshing approach. We see endless revenge thrillers in which the ‘violence is bad’ message is presented to us as a kind of hypocritical coda following scene after scene of indulgent bloodletting – it’s pleasing to see a film step back and allow us to bring our own judgement.
The film is deliciously shot by Saulnier, who also wrote the fairly minimalist but effective script. It also benefits from Macon Blair’s unflashy and charismatic lead performance. We understand that Dwight’s mission of revenge is juvenile and indefensible, but Blair manages to make us root for him nonetheless. He just isn’t a hero.
The narrative shifts in tone a few times, and this does occasionally make the film feel a little bitty. It begins tense, but as it embraces comic elements, it never quite recovers that feeling. I felt a little distanced from Dwight’s crusade by the closing reel, perhaps because the film’s most emotionally effective scene comes in the first half hour, and the tone is generally less bleak in the second half, despite the escalating body count. That said, there is drama in Dwight’s incr easingly pointless-seeming quest, particularly in light of some purposefully hazy revelations around the midway point. It’s the inherent tragedy of the man that sticks in the mind.