When somebody says the words ‘revenge story’ to me, my mind immediately goes to the slick, high octane narratives of films like Old Boy, The Crow or Kill Bill. All brilliant pictures but all, give or take a few plot twists, pictures with a very set structure in terms of a calculated protagonist systematically exacting vengeance on their predetermined targets with great style and satisfaction for the audience. Enter Blue Ruin, a film by Jeremy Saulnier made possible by a successful Kickstarter campaign that takes these familiar genre tropes and adds a stripped down, distinctly art house feel to the proceedings.
The film revolves around Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), a man who at the beginning of the film is portrayed as a homeless vagrant, breaking in to houses to bathe and sifting through trash cans for scraps of food to live on. Almost immediately, the wheels of the narrative are set in motion as Dwight is taken in to the local police station and told by a sympathetic officer that “he” has been released from prison. I won’t declare exactly who “he” is for fear of spoilers, but Dwight’s reaction to this revelation marks the first departure from the cliches of previous revenge films and it is at this point that the audience realise they are in for something a little different. Blue Ruin is an altogether more human depiction of a man seeking vengeance. Dwight’s initial reaction to the news of this opportunistic release of “him” is one of sheer panic and fear, not wide eyed scowling and deep furrowed thought. What we witness is a man absolutely unsure of the actions he is about to attempt but determinedly resigned to the fact that he must avenge the tragedy beset upon his family by this, at this point, mystery villain. What proceeds from this well paced set up is a darkly humoured, effortlessly engagingly and, when the time comes, a gloriously gory feature film that with a Kickstarter budget of $35,000, puts any number of hackneyed revenge blockbusters to absolute shame. The comparison on the poster to the work of the Coen brothers is certainly valid, with the black humour that runs through the narrative providing a quirky edge to what, in truth, is a very sad and serious tale of family rivalry, betrayal and consequence. As a believable protagonist, Dwight never seems fully in control or confident of his actions, and this serves as a much more humanistic and relatable character depiction for the audience than, for example, Uma Thurman’s Bride in Kill Bill. We know for damn sure that if Dwight ends up trapped in a coffin six feet under the ground, there is no way he is getting out, and this evident vulnerability in our anti-hero only helps to engage the audience further and encourage them root for him even more.
In terms of the cast, the weight of the film is carried almost entirely by Macon Blair as Dwight. I can think of only one short scene in the entire picture in which he isn’t present, and the intensity of his characterisation never drops. Blair combines exactly the right amounts of vulnerability, determination and, perhaps mostly importantly, capability, to make the audience believe that this man could carry out the actions we witness on screen. Certainly, Dwight is no action hero or skilled assassin, but there has to be a certain air of credibility to the character in order for us to accept his mission, and Blair expertly delivers the nuanced performance that is required. As one would imagine from a film with such limited budget, the cast of extraneous characters are thin, but this benefits the film enormously in the sense that the story is kept tight and trim with little opportunity to veer from the main objective. The one supporting role of note is Dwight’s old school friend Ben Gaffney, whom he visits to attain a weapon. Played by Devin Ratray, Ben’s presence in the narrative serves to add further a touch of melancholy humour as well as being pivotal in the progression of the plot, and Ratray gives an understated but fitting and memorable performance in the role.
Overall, Blue Ruin is a refreshing cinematic experience depicting a man who stumbles in to a revenge tale rather than the slick, uber focused protagonists that the genre usually presents. Enormous props to Jeremy Saulnier for creating a feature film that utterly defies its humble means. Do not be dissuaded by the film’s micro budget, the action scenes are just as tense and just as graphic as those in pictures with fifty times the resources. It will appeal to both hard core revenge film fans and those with more indie, art house tendencies, a rare combination these days. Films released at this time of the year tend to result in either huge disappointment are completely pleasant surprise, Blue Ruin is unequivocally the latter.