Film of the Week: Blue Ruin
We don’t know much about the protagonist of Blue Ruin, except that he’s let himself go, learned a few survival skills in the process, and is something of a family man—as you have to be if you undertake to avenge the killing of your parents. Otherwise, Dwight (Macon Blair) just wanders through a course of unusually desperate actions in a state of almost machine-like automatism, performing many of his tasks in panicked confusion, as if he’s observing someone else far more naturally reckless doing them. But we never quite know who this person is that’s acting this way, any more than Dwight apparently does. Do this make Blue Ruin an existential thriller? Or just a film about a man in a terrible, terrible mess? Either way, the phased disconnection works a treat.
Jeremy Saulnier’s film starts with a nice twist on the tropes of the home invasion thriller. We see a quick succession of shots of a suburban-looking interior—things on sideboards, family memorabilia, the like—setting up the kind of cozy domestic space that’s invariably ripe for invasion. Oh no, the home is already invaded—there’s a very hairy man lounging in the bath. Now the residents come home—and the man bolts through the window. He’s the terrified one.
But he’s also good at getting in and out of places, and looking after himself. The shaggy-bearded wild man Dwight forages from garbage bags at an amusement park, fixes himself a fish, sleeps in a beat-up Pontiac riddled with bullet holes. He’s clearly no fool, and clearly not so disturbed that he doesn’t know the tricks of survival. But how did he get into this condition? What’s his story? Blue Ruin goes on to tell us—up to an extent. In fact, we only learn so much, which is one of the pleasures of the thing—its extremely to-the-point economy. But it’s also the film’s drawback—you come out feeling that writer-director Saulnier tells you only as much as serves his purpose, and isn’t that bothered with the rest. It’s a little frustrating, but you also admire the need-to-know character of the storytelling.
What happened in Dwight’s life starts to become clear—but not that clear—when a solicitous policewoman takes him to the station and breaks a piece of news to him (not that we hear it: Saulnier is far too fond of plastering everything with the ominous ambient-electronic rumble of Brooke Blair and Will Blair’s score). Eventually, a glimpsed newspaper headline (“DOUBLE MURDERER FREED”) starts to fill us in. By the time the blood starts to flow (a knife to the neck, then one slam in the skull), we know the sort of film we’re dealing with, a bloody revenge thriller; but we don’t know for a long time yet quite what sort of protagonist we’re dealing with. And when Dwight shaves his beard off, cuts his hair, and slips into bland casualwear, he seems to have become another person—no longer the drifting free-floating Id of the economic pariah class, but a shy-looking early-middle-age guy who looks pretty much frightened by everything, including his own sister (Amy Hargreaves).
A lot happens in Blue Ruin, some of it nasty, some of it generic—and the film wouldn’t be half as interesting as it is if not for the casting of Macon Blair as Dwight. It’s his big nervous eyes and bushy quizzical brows that make the film—as if he himself is surprised that he’s turned out to be the one hidden beneath the Unabomber beard, as if he was expecting it to be someone else. Cast anyone obviously scarier, tougher, more self-possessed, and Dwight is a very routine figure—a man who’s been driven by extremity to the brink, but pulled himself back and is now on a mission. Played by the soft-spoken, prickly Blair, Dwight is much more interesting—a man who seems slightly abashed, as if no one ever gave him permission to go to the brink in the first place. Which gives full force to his sister’s angry exclamation: “I’d forgive you if you were crazy—but you’re not, you’re weak.” Dwight carries himself like someone who wishes he had the strength, or just the distinction, to be properly crazy.
As a dark avenger, he’s kind of a mess, in fact—and Blue Ruin contains more incompetence in the pursuit of violence than you’d normally find outside a Coen Bros. movie. Dwight steals a gun, then fails to bash the lock off its trigger; he punctures his enemy’s tire, then uses that car as a getaway vehicle, the knife still embedded in the wheel as it rolls off; he lets an adversary, unfazed by a long spell in the boot of his car, calmly smooth-talk the gun out of his hands. Even so, despite failure after failure after indignity, he persists in his mission, more tenaciously than you and I would—and admit it, wince as we might at Dwight’s gaffes, we’d make them too.
Blue Ruin has a grubby, low-life mood that—especially with its theme of unresolved inter-family tensions—reminded me of Jeff Nichols’s debut Shotgun Stories. And it has a businesslike concision that, at its best, smacks of John Carpenter. Sometimes you feel that the notable gaps in the narrative, the lack of a fully limned backstory, are there because Saulnier isn’t that interested in filling them in. What happened between Dwight’s family and the loathsome Clelands is clear enough—and comes to a neat tragic point near the end when we realize how a seemingly marginal character fits into the picture. But you still find yourself wondering about the lost years in Dwight’s life, quite how he got this way, how he learned to forage and jump-start cars (Dwight, once we see him clean-cut, simply doesn’t seem a jump-start kind of guy). I’m not holding it against Saulnier that he withholds all this information—it’s just that he doesn’t quite convince us that Blue Ruin is the sort of film that thrives on such ostentatious lacunae.
Still, this is an atmospheric, elegant piece, a more delicate, intriguingly nervous piece of pulp noir. You may know Saulnier as the director of something called Murder Party (07), but more likely you’ve seen his atmospherically scuffed lo-fi cinematography for Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill and I Used to Be Darker. The blue note of the title is threaded through a touch heavily at times, but Saulnier is as much a visual as a narrative thinker, which gives this film some impressionistic looseness. And I can’t remember a recent film that made me so much enjoy the director’s pleasure in objects, in loose props—junk, car keys, a torch, stuff in drawers, a fish being sliced.
The sense of earth-shattering importance in Dwight’s vendetta is dispelled at the end with ironic knowing insouciance—a little sign-off to show that our hero has stormed his way to hell, brought damnation upon himself and everyone else in sight, and that all there is to show for it is a postcard that we’d forgotten about, finally reaching its destination too late. What the hell, some of the best stories have ended with similar transcendentally dismissive shrugs: Blue Ruin’s end shot is just a cheaper, neater way of saying “The rest is silence.”