Blue Ruin (2014, dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
Blue Ruin opens on the image of a bearded man in a vulnerable state. He’s settled in for a bath when the sound of a door disturbs him. We quickly learn he doesn’t belong in this house and is, in fact, a homeless man. Dwight Evans is living along the East Coast, foraging from dumpsters and sleeping his car. An empathic police officer who knows Dwight lets him know a man convicted of murdering people close to Dwight has been released back home in Virginia. Dwight makes the decision to travel back and get revenge. But, to the film’s enormous credit, this man is not a trained assassin and is not taking into account the disastrous series of events he is about to trigger.
Before Green Room, director Jeremy Saulnier helmed this meditation on the price of retribution. Saulnier did not have many films under his belt, but his technical prowess is already apparent here (and if you have seen Green Room). Light and shadow are used effectively to set the tone, and figures emerge from shadows in a way that adds to their menace. Saulnier shows he has an excellent relationship with editor Julia Bloch (also on Green Room). Together they construct such palpable tension and anxiety through minimalistic cutting techniques. Shots linger for just the right excruciating amount of time and cut to the perfect reaction or follow-up shot. That strength in editing connects to the pacing of the script. The story doesn’t get too heavy too earlier. The dissemination of information to the audience is also heavily controlled. The full details of the crime committed that sent Dwight into a reclusive state isn’t revealed until over halfway into the picture.
The lead performance rests on the shoulders of Macon Blair, a loyal Saulnier collaborator. Blair delivers what audiences might misconstrue as “too subtle” or “non-emotional, ” but there is a density of emotion and history in what he is doing. Dwight is a character who crossed a line of emotional exhaustion years ago. He couldn’t survive in the world if he didn’t pass through the tears and rage. So now Dwight approaches each obstacle with a cold duty. He doesn’t care if he lives or dies anymore, he only feels he has to keep living to carry on an obligation. You might not notice, but he barely speaks for the first 20 minutes of the film, about only one line in that time. So the story is being told in his face, and thankfully Blair has a face, particularly eyes that tell a story.
What hit me hard about Blue Ruin is how relevant its themes are personally and globally. At first, this seems to be a straightforward revenge film, but the revenge comes very early in the movie. I found myself shocked at what the rest of this film would be about. Then both the audience and Dwight realize his first error which compounds into more and more. This compounding of errors leads to Dwight forced into killing more people, and this breaks him down. He seeks out help only to keep himself long enough to try and remedy his errors. When the full revelation of the inciting crime comes to light, we enter a space of moral ambiguity. People Dwight believes are guilty of things may not be the ones who did it. They are not innocent by any means, but the circumstances are significantly more complicated than first revealed.
In a world where we hear the phrase “good guy with a gun” uttered often or people spending hours of their lives attempting to justify an assault on people, they disagree with politically, Blue Ruin, without being didactic, asks us to question this. Someone most definitely harmed Dwight and people he loved, there is no doubt about this. But for every act of violence, he commits he doesn’t honor the memory of the people he lost or bring any peace to himself. Violence compounds violence, as I’ve talked about before in the context of Arya Stark. The film ends with a character who makes a choice not to commit violence. They walk away as others destroy each other. This character’s future, and could end up in the same situation we find Dwight in at the start, but by choosing not to kill they are free of the curse, two families have inflicted on each other for years.