Editor’s note: Our review of Blue Ruin originally ran during last year’s Fantastic Fest, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release and on VOD. You should probably see it.
The beauty of film festivals is that the vast majority of the movies exist outside the vacuum of movie blogs, magazines, and water cooler conversations. They’re unknown quantities, and while many are destined to stay that way, each year a handful of titles explode from the periphery to mesmerize, entertain, and impress unsuspecting viewers.
Welcome to Blue Ruin.
Dwight (Macon Blair) is a bit of a loner. He lives in his car, parked on the side of a road near a Delaware beach, and spends his days scrounging for food, collecting cans and reading. A gentle wake-up knock on his car window precedes a disturbing piece of news. The man who killed Dwight’s parents is being released from prison. Single-minded but far from focused, Dwight fills the gas tank, pops the car battery into place and makes a beeline straight into hell.
“You point the gun. You shoot the gun.”
The setup here is economical, and the rest of the film follows suit, but rather than be a negative that simplicity actually elevates the film above its bigger budgeted, higher profile cousins. A Hollywood version of this tale would complicate things with unnecessary subplots, excessive exposition and time spent highlighting just how bad the bad guy and his henchmen really are. Here we stick with Dwight throughout, and the result is one of the most intimate and affecting revenge films in years.
Dwight is a broken, haunted man. Lost in his own head since the murders, he’s retreated into a solitary existence from a world that would allow such a thing to happen. He left behind family and friends, but now a single purpose propels him forward forcing him back into society. He’s no action hero or avenging angel though, and his efforts reveal a clumsy but determined man digging a deeper and bloodier hole by the minute.
Blair is the heart and soul of the film acting as beautifully in long dialogue-free scenes as he does in conversation with those he loves and those he hates. The camera gets lost in the sadness pouring from his eyes on more than one occasion, and the swirl of anger, confusion and loneliness draws viewers into a world none of us would enter willingly.
Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is wise to trust not only his lead character and actor but also his audience. Plot details and motivations are never shoved in our direction like street corner pamphlets but are instead revealed only when necessary. Much is left for viewers to connect on their own, and it’s not nearly as complicated an endeavor as Hollywood likes to believe.
Saulnier also earns points for trusting in practical effects for his various scenes of brutality. Not only are they more visually arresting but they’re far weightier too. CGI blood may save a filmmaker money, but a practically accomplished attack that leaves a man’s slowly dying eye filling with the red stuff makes his death tangible in far more unsettling ways.
Blue Ruin is tragedy on an intimate scale, but don’t let its tiny budget fool you. It looks far more costly, which is fitting as its emotional toll is higher than the norm too.
The Upside: Macon Blair stuns; practical effects executed simply and impressively; almost an hour straight of steadily building tension; never spoon-feeds viewers
The Downside: Could actually have been longer, maybe; I still don’t know what the title means
On the Side: Dwight’s only friend in the world is played by Devin Ratray. That’s right. Kevin McCallister’s older, dickish brother is still alive and has a gun permit.