Revenge is a well-worn narrative path, the notion of violence begetting violence seems to have been hardwired into crime films over the course of cinema history. It’s easy – cause and effect, action and reaction – plot becomes reflex. Films concerning vengeance, though, are often interchangeable, bogged down by either a lack of substance or character, they merge into one big mess of genre – for every Taken we have many Stolens in its wake. There are a few exceptions to this, Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories and Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil are perhaps the best recent examples,1 and for wildly different reasons, as each break the mould of revenge storytelling. Jeremy Saulnier’s recent Blue Ruin succeeds in a similar vein, by acknowledging genre expectations and working off of rather than within them the film presents a hyper-simplistic story through nuanced characterisation and a suffocating sense of tension.
A key element of the genre is time. The very structure of Blue Ruin recognises this – we have a crime that occurred around two decades ago being avenged over the space of a few days. We follow a drifter by the beach, Dwight (a thoroughly impressive Macon Blair), who is propelled into action by a newspaper article a police officer gives him. We are not given clear exposition until later and the film is much better for that – whilst we slowly catch up on motive, we remain riveted by the uncertainty and the unknown in his actions. Unlike most revenge films, then, Saulnier’s is about reflection and the madness inherent in biding your time. This is not a case of ‘hot-blooded’ murder, the actions in the film are premeditated, at least on a conceptual level. That’s not to say the film’s plot is a product of intricate plotting, we often see his haphazard means of dealing with murder, but the way each of these sequences is framed reveal a sense of ‘planning’ and progression towards an end.
Saulnier took on the role of writer, director and cinematographer and impresses in each capacity; in addition to an impressive narrative the film looks great and this cohesion of creative roles seems to have helped in the way the film handles tone. From the opening sequence we are caught within these smaller vignettes of logical response – Dwight is wounded at a point in the film and we follow him, step by step, as he attempts to self-medicate. The film is sparse and moments of violence punctuate the film, rather than being everpresent. What this does is effectively control tension, something the film has in common with David Michôd’s The Rover, another recent thriller that plays with genre. Despite being sparse, though, the film is imbued with a unique intelligence. As more characters are introduced the film seems to almost ground itself in reality, one character bluntly noting that the act of murder as revenge is “weak”. Despite the hallmarks of the genre present, in particular the final shootout, the film manages to contemplate these ideas as they are addressed in the plot.
As aforementioned, Macon Blair carries the film well, cutting an unusual figure for a leading man.2 The way in which Saulnier uses recurring visual motifs of his habits in the first half hour of the film, most notably the drinking of tea, is also impressive in adding dimension to the character. In additon to Blair, the casting of Devin Ratray as an old high school buddy has metatextual implications that amuse. Ratray also plays one of the idiot nephews in Payne’s Nebraska and his appearence here, once more a connection to some kind of Americana, contains humour with a darker edge to it. His role isn’t merely to act as a plot device, it’s also a reminder of the solitude of Dwight, his terse and short lived nostalgia on full display in his interactions here.
The film falters when it gets to the plot reveal, despite an earlier reference to the pitfalls of monologues, here we get overlong exposition through dialogue. Too much information comes too quickly, the audience already positioned as a Dwight surrogate, in that we’re “not used to talking this much”. It doesn’t derail the film entirely, though, as the nuanced and almost philosophical conclusion to the film is lifted by the emotional nature of the earlier reveal. Its climax is something to admire, lacking in any pretension as it moves forward to a necessary end.
Blue Ruin was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign and can be completely regarded as an independent success in the film world. Picking up a FIPRESCI award at Cannes in 2013 and a slew of awards at other festivals, its usage of tension makes it seem like a film that would work even better with a crowd. As it stands, though, it is very much a worthwhile viewing experience, a win for intelligent and minimalist genre storytelling and, for once, a revenge story that deals with the emotional fallout of the act of revenge with nuance and skill.
Blue Ruin is out now on DVD and on-demand from Madman Entertainment
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