Last week, I reviewed Murder Party, director Jeremy Saulnier’s debut feature from 2007. I found it to be a funny, unique little horror film, and especially impressive when stacked up against its minuscule budget. There are strokes in that film that exhibit a budding director whose future only holds better things. Just how much better, exactly, I don’t think anyone could have expected. Saulnier’s 2013 follow-up, Blue Ruin, is a masterful sophomore effort.
The revenge thriller has been a staple in film for decades. Death Wish, Kill Bill, I Spit On Your Grave — we’ve all seen movies in which revenge is the central motivator. In the majority of these films, the concept of revenge is the end goal of the main characters and, more often than not, it’s supposed to be a celebratory event. Revenge is seen as the proverbial cherry atop the blood-stained ice cream sundae.
In these films, we usually see the event that sparks the main character’s bloodlust. We watch in terror as they are betrayed, left for dead, or worse yet, bear witness to the death of their loved ones. We feel the pain that the protagonist endures, and maybe we even wish that we could be the ones to connect that final blow to the adversary. By the end, we’ve watched the protagonist go to hell and back to defeat their nemeses, and we cheer as the enemy finally gets what’s coming to them.
Blue Ruin all but says “fuck your genre conventions” towards the tried and true revenge flick, flipping the entire genre on its head (and flipping it the bird in the process), and alternately portrays a story of vengeance that you can’t predict. It will subsequently leave you feeling more so horrified than cheerful.
We don’t get to witness the horrible event that affects our main character, Dwight (Macon Blair), but instead the aftermath. Dwight’s a lowly, scraggly 30-something who has taken to living in his rusted blue Pontiac (from which the film gets its title) for some years after his parents were murdered inside of it, bullet holes still riddled on the exterior. When Dwight gets word that the man responsible for his parents’ slaying, Wade Cleland, has been released from prison, he goes on the offensive. While it’s a fumbling attempt that almost gets Dwight himself killed, he is successful in exacting his revenge no more than 30 minutes into the film.
From here we see Dwight return to his parents’ home, of which his sister has been living. He believes that the Cleland family will soon be wanting to get their own revenge. The film then spirals into a sort of backwoods war between Dwight and the Cleland family, though I don’t want to go too much further into the plot as to stay away from spoiling any more of it. I will say, though, that the film only gets better and better as it continues on, giving more time to exhibit the repercussions of revenge often under-represented in cinema. The film also presents various themes that even include an examination of the gun-obsessed culture that America has found itself in.
Saulnier takes on the bulk of the work for the film as being credited as writer, director, and cinematographer, and each aspect is as impressive as the last. Where Murder Party definitely had the air of a first-time director, Blue Ruin feels more akin to the work of a director equipped with a storied filmography of amazing features, yet this is still only Saulnier’s second film. The film is so well crafted and visually striking, and editor Julia Bloch deserves credit as well, cutting a lean 90 minute film where every scene feels the exact right length and each is as important as the last.
The work in front of the camera is just as awesome as everything done behind the scenes. Macon Blair’s phenomenal portrayal of Dwight ends up being one of the most memorable performances in an indie film I’ve seen in quite some time. His character isn’t exactly a force to be reckoned with like the protagonists of revenge flicks of yore. Rather, Dwight is a highly damaged individual who is anything but stable, and that’s actually what makes him such a threat. There’s an almost lifelessness to his character from start to finish and we only see a few important glimpses into the Dwight that came before all of this, but his quiet, mysterious demeanor ends up making his character that much more engaging to watch. There’s an unpredictability to the character that keeps the film fresh and captivating, and I for one wanted to see his arc through to the bitter end.
Jeremy Saulnier restructures a genre that is usually devoid of realism and relatability and spins a tale that is incredibly effective, down-to-earth, and entirely engaging. Featuring an award-worthy central performance, a tight script, and beautiful cinematography, Blue Ruin is a modern American masterpiece.
If Murder Party is the appetizer in Jeremy Saulnier’s filmography — being short-lived and enjoyable in the moment, but ultimately not very memorable or rewarding — then Blue Ruin is the exceptional main course that follows. It fills you up, leaving you elated with what you’ve just experienced, but still with just enough room to squeeze in the dessert that is Saulnier’s third and latest film, Green Room. Be sure to return next week when I take a look at that.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor