It’s not often that a genre film manages to go beyond the norm, yet Jeremy Saulnier’s low-budget and action-packed Blue Ruin does just that. As a revenge thriller it provides all the gory violence and retribution expected, but it is Saulnier’s focus on the consequences of this violence that breathes new life into the genre and sets this refreshingly unexpected tale apart from the crowd.
Blue Ruin is Saulnier’s second feature film, following the often inept Dwight (Macon Blair) on his misguided and blood-soaked mission to kill the man that murdered his parents. Where this brutal act of vengeance might be expected to be the sole focus of a revenge-drama, it is achieved within the first twenty minutes of the film. It is the events which ensue after Dwight murders Wade Cleland that set off most of the action, to both hilarious and harrowing ends.
Saulnier sets the mood for the film in its opening sequence; the camera moves through a comfortable-looking home, passing family photos and other signs of a normal domestic life, into a bathroom. We see the mightily bearded Dwight sitting in the tub enjoying a peaceful bath: a scene of domestic bliss. Except that this is not his home and this it is not his bath. Roused by the sounds of people entering the house, Dwight looks around in a fright. Is he being robbed? No, he is the intruder, the outsider. After a quick scramble out the window he is safely back outside and into his lonely world of contented drifting. Saulnier is able to do what most filmmakers dream of: tell tales with images alone. This simple scene without words tells the audience so much about Dwight. In fact, the lack of dialogue is one of the film’s most distinguishing features.
Dwight gains our sympathy in this first section of the film. We see him scrounging food from bins outside funfairs, reading books by torchlight under a boardwalk, and swimming in the sea at dawn. Although he may seem to be a perfectly functioning individual who simply chooses to live on the outskirts of civilization, we come to realise that there is in fact some serious damage behind those big watery eyes and that bushy beard. After a series of comically useless attempts to obtain a gun, Dwight stalks the man he thinks killed his parents. A brutal knifing in a bathroom ensues and a riotously botched escape plan leaves Dwight hounded and fighting for the survival of his family.
His quest for firearms leads him to a gun-toting high school buddy, Ben. But rather than playing up to the stereotype, Ben recognises that Dwight’s mission is far from righteous; it is ugly and wrong. This is one of several instances that demonstrate an attitude of fearful fascination with guns and gun culture in America. Yet Saulnier achieves the near-impossible and manages to maintain sympathy for Dwight without condoning his murderous revenge. This is done partly through Dwight’s utter incompetence when it comes to acts of violence, often leading to darkly humorous consequences. A particularly funny sequence involving a crossbow bolt to the leg is just one example of this.
Saulnier has proven himself a filmmaker worthy of comparisons to the Coen Brothers, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino. Expertly mixing horror, humour and hair-raising tension, Blue Ruin resembles the kind of blood-spattered spectacle that Dwight himself might have left in his wake.