Mark Reviews Movies

Blue Ruin


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jeremy Saulnier

Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidné Anderson

MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, and language)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 4/25/14 (limited); 5/2/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 2, 2014

We're never truly finished with the past. The only question is how heavily it weighs on each of us individually.

The characters in Blue Ruin run the gamut of how much the past has affected them. Even the film's most stable character, who has gone on to have a family of her own after her own family was destroyed by tragedy, admits she can't help but feel something when she sees a limousine, which has come for her to symbolize that sometimes the bad people of this world don't get what she believes should be coming to them.

That she opens up about the limos is one thing, but it's even more important that she either can't or won't say exactly what she feels when she sees those automotive beasts. She's about to say something, but the words don't come. Could any word really express the pain for what she's lost?  If she knows the word or words she wants to use, she doesn't allow them to pass her lips. Would it cheapen what's in her heart, or would it be confessing to some impulse of hatred and anger and desire for violence?

We don't know. Whatever she might have said just hangs in the air—just an ellipsis. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier's film lives in that empty space of the unspoken.

It's a revenge tale that takes revenge as a given. Within the film's first 20 minutes, the protagonist has accomplished exactly what he has set out to do, and the person we assume he would spend the entirety of the film pursuing is dead, lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor of a roadhouse bathroom. It's about as undignified a death as one could meet, but there it is in its brutal, filthy, and dreadful reality. After a later, equally nasty death met at the business end of a high-powered rifle, another character puts it another way: "That's what bullets do."

When these characters speak, it's with that kind of mater-of-fact wisdom. They don't talk much, and that's especially true of protagonist Dwight (Macon Blair), who admits as much to his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), the woman haunted by limousines. For the first part of the film, he's silent because he doesn't have anyone to talk to in the first place; for the rest of the film, it's because he's too busy trying to avoid being killed himself and, if it's difficult to put one's emotions about revenge into words, it's probably near-impossible to explain the whys and hows of actually following through on those compulsions.

Dwight lives out of his car on a beach in Delaware, just outside the limits of carnival where his parents used to take him when he was a child. It's been 20 years since they were murdered, and he's still living—paralyzed by grief and regret and pent-up rage—in their shadow.

His hair and beard are tangled. He breaks into houses to bathe. He scours the beach for glass bottles to turn in for cash. He digs through the garbage bins by the boardwalk in search of food. One morning, a friendly police officer (Sidné Anderson) knocks on his car window and asks him to come down to the station. When he does speak, it's a soft-spoken, barely formed whisper, like his vocal cords are on the verge of atrophy from disuse.

She has bad news for Dwight: The man convicted of murdering his parents is about to be released from jail. There's no real consideration for what his next step will be. First thing in the morning, Dwight puts some gas in his car, replaces the battery, and disposes of the few unessential items he owns before hitting the road to confront his parents' killer.

From the time we spend with him in the first act, we know Dwight is resourceful, and based on the dead-eyed stare that results from his learning about the murderer's release, we're pretty sure of his convictions. What sets Dwight apart from the usual revenge-seeking protagonist of a movie such as this is that he can't quite execute his ideas.

Part of it is the limited monetary resources he has. He enters a pawn shop and eyes the guns on display, but he can't afford any of them. Instead, he rather smartly goes to a local bar and checks through the windows of parked cars for a gun. The one Dwight steals, though, has a lock. He tries breaking the lock with a crowbar but ends up destroying the gun.

Dwight knows exactly what to do but isn't experienced enough to think through the details. The rest of his troubles comes from the fact that he's simply unprepared for what he needs to do. He hasn't figured out how to puncture a tire without it resulting in a giant gash on his hand. When he has a sitting target in the sights of his rifle a few yards away, he shoot wide.  He's like a music student who knows how to read the notes but has never touched an instrument.

Saulnier treats the material with deathly sincerity, but he's also not afraid to inject some mischievous gallows humor into the mix (a potential last meal that ends up on the side of the road). Desperation is, after all, a solid foundation for good comedy.

The mistakes mount and mount. Eventually, he is without a car (He left the keys in the worst place imaginable and stabbed the tire of the one he steals as a substitute), the family of the murdered murderer are able to track him to his childhood home where his sister and her daughters live, and he has to figure out how to remove an arrow from his leg (The best way to explain the situation to a curious pharmacist is not to explain it at all). He gets a little better with the help of an old friend from high school and military veteran named Ben (Devin Ratray), who knows what's happening but is too loyal to tell Dwight anything other than what he already knows: This is ugly business.

There's something extraordinarily ordinary about Saulnier's approach that cuts right through the thin skin of vengeance. Blue Ruin imagines how difficult it would be for an everyday person to enact the particulars, acknowledges how surprisingly easy it could be to succeed, and knows how ultimately pointless the entire endeavor is.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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