Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a homeless man living in a run-down blue sedan by the beach. A police officer tracks him down to inform him that Wade Cleland – the man who murdered Dwight’s parents, is to be released from prison on parole. Dwight immediately collects his belongings and drives home to Virginia on a mission of revenge.
The basic set-up of Blue Ruin, an independent revenge thriller directed by Jeremy Saulnier, does not go anywhere near expressing the precise narrative or emotional tone of the movie itself. While it does begin from a familiar premise – a man goes home after many years to kill someone for their crimes against him – its execution presents a much more original, realistic and regularly unexpected version of an oft-told story. It is a very small scale, almost domestic kind of a film, but it is also a bleak and occasionally rather funny one. Many critics have compared it to the Coen brothers’ classic Blood Simple, and while the similarities are there it does feel like an under-selling of Blue Ruin‘s own eccentricities.
One of the biggest surprises is just how quickly Dwight succeeds in his initial plan. By the end of a remarkable 20 minute opening act, one told almost entirely without dialogue, he has learned of Cleland’s release, driven all the way back to Virginia, watched Cleland get released from prison, followed him and his family to a nearby bar and murdered him in the rest room. The remaining hour or so of the film concentrates entirely on the unfolding repercussions of Dwight’s actions.
There is an awkward and rather untidy tone to Blue Ruin. People do not die neatly. They more often simply get injured. They bleed and limp. Bullets regularly miss their targets. When they do not miss, their wounds turn out to be horrifying and messy. A little blood can cover a surprisingly large area. For his own part Dwight is no combat veteran. He has no idea of how to handle a gun. Even when Cleland’s extended family choose not to inform the police of his death but rather hunt Dwight down themselves, he fails to have a carefully considered plan.
By pretty much every measure Dwight is an incompetent protagonist. Even taking into account the trauma of his parents’ murder he seems unnaturally small and sad. Macon Blair plays the role extremely well, and it is in many respects a difficult role to play. He simultaneously juggles playing a tragic hero, a miserable failure, and a sympathetic victim. That he balances both negative and positive qualities so well makes his performance a fascinating one to watch.
The big surprise among the supporting cast is Devin Ratray as Dwight’s former high school buddy Ben Gaffney, now an ardent gun enthusiast. Ratray remains best known for his juvenile performance as Kevin McAllister’s older brother Buzz in Home Alone (1990), but it is great to see him deliver such an assured and confident performance here. The ease with which Ben can provide Dwight with firearms demonstrates the worrying state of gun control in the USA.
Blue Ruin is a great low-budget thriller with an original voice and strong, realistic performances. Jeremy Saulnier has already leveraged its critical success onto the larger-scale and more widely distributed thriller Green Room (2015). I suspect going forward he will become an American filmmaker to watch.