If we try to pinpoint cinema’s favorite vice, the contest isn’t particularly close. I’ve taken the liberty of sketching out a hierarchy of star billing for the mortal sins, based on how often they are made the subject of movies, the frequency with which they are not merely represented but seemingly reveled in being a secondary consideration. Sloth isn’t exactly cinematic, so we’ll have to put it on the bottom. Slightly above come Envy and its opposite number, Pride. Gluttony, Greed, and Lust are all good ones, each with a storied history of its own. But Wrath—oh, Wrath is in a class by itself. Say it out loud. It sounds cool.
Wrath is of course the engine that motivates revenge, one of the movies’ favorite subjects—though a subject that the medium tends to have a conflicted relationship with. This ambivalence at the center of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, which first played out at the 2013 Cannes, where it won the FIPRESCI critics’ prize, subsequently worked the festival circuit (I saw it on one of these stops), and became a critical cause célèbre since opening stateside a couple of weeks ago. Here is Sam Adams at CriticWire, rounding up Blue Ruin’s largely positive notices, and incidentally using it as a paddle to wallop The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with—I’ll take his word for the latter point. (The noteworthy dissenting opinion comes from New York magazine by David Edelstein, who has always taken a pretty hard line on revenge pictures.)
It’s not surprising that Blue Ruin is winning raves, for Saulnier’s second feature has certain cinematic and narrative values that one doesn’t often see in American movies, particularly action movies—and it does belong to this category, however distantly removed it is from what the words “action movie” have come to promise (i.e., fireballs, robots, robots throwing fireballs). Going to work with a half-million budget, Saulnier gets his effects the old-fashioned way, by being attentive to the environment he’s shooting; Blue Ruin, grounded throughout in real American contexts, is unusually sensitive to place. The film follows Dwight (Macon Blair) from bumming around the boardwalk of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, to his sister’s suburban home, to the armament-bristling compound of his veteran-turned-one-man-army buddy (Devin Ratray). A wan, scraggily bearded half-ghost when we first encounter him, Dwight is turned corporeal and armed with a vivid sense of purpose when he gets word that the man responsible for his parents’ murder is going to be released from jail. After messily carrying out his self-appointed revenge mission with the blundering recklessness that defines his actions throughout the movie’s first half, Dwight then has to try to staunch the flow of wrathful retribution that he’s invited from his victim’s next-of-kin.
All throughout Saulnier keeps the action grounded in a specific locality, the central Virginia of ancient, middle-sized university towns and metal bars. (It is a curious but true fact that Old Dominion produces more metal bands per capita than any other place in the Union.) Saulnier directed a 2007 feature called Murder Party, though most of his previous credits are as a cinematographer. He shot Blue Ruin himself, and his résumé includes DP work on Matthew Porterfield’s films Hamilton, Putty Hill, and I Used to Be Darker, all of which show an unusual attention to what I like to call “room tone”—that particular combination of fine-tuned lighting, ultra-specific touches of décor, and actorly attitudes towards a space that, when done correctly, come together to give us a sense of this-is-what-it-is-like-to-be-in-this-place. Like James Gray, whose much-delayed The Immigrant will finally be arriving in theaters this month, Porterfield and Saulnier are acutely attentive to the texture of a scene, but what Blue Ruin is missing is Gray’s sense of tragic reckoning. This isn’t for lack of trying, but what’s even worse is that the strain shows. Blue Ruin is a very good movie when it closely involves itself in specific tasks—the practical problem of removing a crossbow bolt from the meat of your thigh, say, or of trying to get the lock off of a stolen handgun. When making the leap from minutiae to universal truths, however, the movie goes tumbling into the gap between. When it ceases to be involved in the nuts-and-bolts contingencies of moment-to-moment and takes on a philosophical air, leaving behind the concrete to become a film of ideas, its credibility is left behind on the ground. Blair has a nice spooked expression, but he’s not what you’d call a powerhouse performer, and it’s hard to imagine anyone successfully negotiating a few of the lines he has to deliver in the last act.
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The title Blue Ruin refers, presumably, to Dwight’s rust-bucket Pontiac Bonneville, though it derives from a nickname for gin that goes back at least as far as Georgian England, and it would make a fine name for a country music tune—the music of morning-after regret. This suits what’s ultimately a self-reproaching revenge movie that takes place in the hangover of a slaked bloodlust. This type of conflicted revenge film is only somewhat less common than the revenge film which goes about its business with cheery, unmitigated enthusiasm, a school whose most prominent representative today is Quentin Tarantino. For Tarantino, it appears that tapping into the basic human desire to see one’s enemies served their just deserts is the very highest aspiration of cinema, its gory apex. This conviction is evident in every film that Tarantino has made in the 21st century, and even in his extracurricular activity—when Tarantino was the Cannes Competition jury president in 2004, the Grand Prix went to Oldboy, centerpiece of Park Chan-wook’s “Revenge Trilogy.” On the extreme other side of the Tarantino model, there is the anti-revenge revenge thriller, like Götz Spielmann’s 2008 Revanche, an “exquisitely composed, slow-burn” bore which builds towards a seemingly inevitable confrontation, only to renege on the promised retribution. (The structuring absence rug-pull is the movie’s sole distinction.)
For the rabble, any excuse to identify with the revenger is enough, but Tarantino well knows that for pseudo-sophisticated audiences it’s only socially acceptable to root for retributive wrath when the hand dealing out vigilante justice belongs to a designated oppressed group, rising up. In February, BAMcinématek’s “Vengeance Is Hers” series, which grouped movies belonging to the women’s revenge subgenre, was sufficiently successful to spawn an encore, “Back with a Vengeance,” which wrapped last week. Along with several return performances, there were some new additions, including Sudden Impact, the fourth film in the Dirty Harry franchise, which flips the series’s established men’s revenge script, and the only one directed by Clint Eastwood, who has been tussling with the subject of revenge in various ways throughout his career—most recently in 2008’s home movie Gran Torino, in which Clint’s curmudgeonly racist Walt Kowalski dies in a bullet-strafed “It is finished” pose, so that his Hmong neighbors might live free of harassment by local gangs. (Sudden Impact features a farting dog named Meathead for comic relief and Harry Callahan’s all-time worst tough guy monologue; Gran Torino features the phrase “good gook food”; they are both strange and kind of marvelous films.)
At the heart of the revenge movie there is usually a form of bait-and-switch: how do you illustrate the mutually assured destructive force that is uncorked by wrath, while still satisfying the audience’s appetite for blood? (See for example the above IMDb message-board poster, evincing an interest in Blue Ruin.) Anthony Mann’s tactic, practiced in his psychologically wrenching Westerns of the Fifties, was to eventually give his audiences what they wanted, but in such a way that they didn’t want it anymore by the time that they got it. The revenge films that I admire the most tend not to be easily categorized as glorifying (Tarantino) or castigating (Revanche), but instead deal with the revenger’s obsessive drive, and its fallout, as incontrovertible phenomena that must be allowed to run their course, like weather patterns. Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (which screened in “Vengeance Is Hers”) is one such film, which has a sinister knack of courting and then complicating audience identification. Phil Karlson (The Phenix City Story, 99 River Street) had a unique talent for calmly handling white-hot anger, particularly in his penultimate Walking Tall, a film that features one of the most disturbing “triumphalist” endings that I know of. In it, Sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) strides down the main street of the formerly wide-open town that he’s helped to clean out through brute physical force, but this is no ticker-tape parade. Not only has Pusser lost the very thing he set out to protect—his wife has been killed in an attempt on his life—but, wearing a plaster cast on the lower part of his face, he has ceased to be identifiably himself, ceased even to seem human. He has prevailed, but at the price of becoming a kind of hillbilly Golem.
Pusser’s brand of revenge is something else, revenge cloaked in the righteous habit of cosmic justice. This is a tradition hardly limited to the Occident: The weekend before last, I was privileged to see an immaculate collector’s print of Lau Kar-leung’s 1983 The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter playing as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s recurring Fist & Sword program. Pole Fighter draws on the much-recycled tale of the Yangs, a military family of the Song Dynasty comprised of seven brothers and their general father. (The material was most recently adapted into last year’s fairly enjoyable Saving General Yang, Ronny Yu’s Hong Kong homecoming.) The spectacularly stagey opening of Pole Fighter, which is half a loaf of kung fu and the rest MGM razzle-dazzle, has General Yeung Yip and his seven sons being ambushed and nearly exterminated by Khitan barbarians. Only the fifth and sixth sons (Gordon Liu and Alexander Fu) survive the melee; Number Six returns home a PTSD-ravaged, shell-shocked mess, while Number Five takes refuge in a Buddhist monastery. Once inside, Number Five exhorts the monks to train him, but they refuse because he is motivated by vengeance and anger. Finally, Number Six drops his spear and takes up one of the quarterstaffs favored by the brothers, and is allowed to begin training with them. The monks’ preferred “speed bags” are intricately constructed wooden wolves that, when hit with the correct puzzle-box combination, cough up their fangs. This reinforces the ideal of martial arts as taught at the monastery: neutralize the threat, rather than fight to kill. Number Five’s training is put into practice when his sister is kidnapped by the Khitans, forcing him and his new comrades to go on a rescue mission, confronting the belligerent enemy forces and literally bashing out their teeth, which they spit up like Chiclets. This might be likened to the white-hat gunfighter’s trick of shooting the pistol out of his black-hat rival’s hand, the fatal shot being only used as a last resort—when Pusser blows away a woman, we see that his hand is forced.
A few days after The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, I saw for the first time the 1944 Miyamoto Musashi, one of the samurai jideigeki made by Kenji Mizoguchi during the war years, which he later regarded with a degree of shame. (It will be playing at MoMI this weekend, May 10 and 11, as part of their complete retrospective of Mizoguchi’s extant films.) The eponymous hero of Miyamoto Musashi, played by Chojuro Kawarasaki, is based on a famous swordsman of the 17th century, the same historical personage played by Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy. A young brother and sister duo (Kigoro Ikushima and frequent Mizoguchi collaborator Kinuyo Tanaka) who’ve lost their father to a rival clan seek out Miyamoto, and implore him to train them so that they may take their revenge. Miyamoto takes them on as students, but being a philosophical warrior, he sternly admonishes them against vengeance. “Regrets and grudges are evil illusions of the mind,” he says, continuing, “I don’t teach the sword for revenge. The sword is the way. It’s the way of the warrior. Not a convenient tool for revenge. Learning the sword for purposes of revenge is like a merchant crafting a product trying to make a profit. Being lost in the superficial techniques and limiting it to the usage as a tool, how do you expect to understand the true way?”
This is all said shortly before Miyamoto singlehandedly wipes out a pack of rivals in an impressive sideways-traveling single take that makes the Oldboy corridor brawl look like rookie stuff. What is the true way, as preached by Miyamoto? “The true way is beyond winning and losing,” says Miyamoto, before adding “But aim at winning first. By winning, the way will reveal itself to you.” Got it? This may seem remarkably close to “Might makes right”—though Miyamoto has a lot more to say on the subject as he goes about his business, dispatching foes for reasons which have, of course, nothing whatsoever to do with grudges or personal pride. Miyamoto, like Number Five, goes through a lot of fine phraseology and soul-searching before his final bout, but for all of it, come the end of their respective movies, their enemies are invariably left toothless, crippled, and dead. There’s much expenditure of verbiage to reassure us of the righteousness of their kills, but entertainment creates its own sort of justice—and measured against this scale, Pole Fighter and Miyamoto Musashi admirably vindicate themselves.