Back in the days when I pursued film criticism as a semi-fulltime activity, I always tried to hold myself to professional standards. Anything that I felt might color my view of a film, I left outside the theater. I felt it was the proper way to handle my duty of analyzing and recommending or not recommending a film. But looking back, no matter how much I did my best to maintain a neutral attitude going into a film, my personal issues—both good and bad—obviously seeped into almost every review I wrote. When I started up this site, I decided to largely jettison the idea of neutrality in my writing. This led me to write more about films by filmmakers who I have a slight obsession with.
Another result of my decision to be more upfront with the way my life affected the way I watched films, was that I largely abandoned reviewing new films. The few exceptions I made were either because I felt the film was not receiving the due it deserved (Last Ride) or if the film fell within the parameters of one of my already existing columns (The Canyons in The Movie Defender). Most of the new films that were released failed to grab me enough to bother writing about or they were getting enough ink that my championing them would be redundant when so many better and higher profile film critics were already behind them.
Blue Ruin falls squarely within the latter category I just described. While it is a decidedly small-scale indie (at least in terms of the production scale, but emotionally, this movie is an epic journey—more on that later), the film has amassed terrific reviews nearly across the board. Simply put, Blue Ruin doesn’t need my puny voice added to its chorus of praise. But watching the film affected me in a very personal way that I don’t normally acknowledge in private, let alone post on the Internet for all to read.
So, bear with me, dear reader. I’m not about to spill all the secrets of my soul, but I am going to reveal more of myself than I am normally comfortable with. But trust me, this isn’t going to be navel gazing or horribly self-indulgent. This post will still work as a review, if that’s all you’re looking for. But if you’re looking for an exploration of how a film can speak to directly to someone in a difficult place in his or her life, I think this will be of interest.
In a dialogue-free opening, Blue Ruin introduces us to Dwight (Macon Blair), a homeless man living on the fringes of a beachfront resort town in Delaware. Dwight has long, unkempt hair and an unruly beard. He breaks into houses, not to rob them, but to bathe. He collects bottles and cans for money and scrounges through the trash for food. He lives in his car—a rusted out, faded-blue early ’90s sedan that ominously has what look like bullet holes in the hood and fender.
Writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier takes his time in the opening scenes, letting Blair’s sad eyes and beaten down posture set up the character. When a police officer (Sidné Anderson) approaches Dwight nearly ten minutes into the film, speaking the first lines of dialogue, it’s almost as startling to the audience to hear someone speak as it is for Dwight to find someone acknowledging his existence.
In the first of several scenes that seem to be headed into clichéd territory before Saulnier disrupts expectations, the officer is not out to hassle Dwight. Instead, in as sympathetic a manner as she can, she gently breaks the news that the man convicted of murdering his parents twenty years earlier has been released from prison as part of a plea deal.
This news sends Dwight down a path of revenge that he is woefully unprepared to take. But as he briefly reconnects with his estranged sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) and a high school friend (Devin Ratray) as his quest takes him in unexpected directions, it becomes clear that any revenge Dwight enacts will only perpetuate a cycle of violence that will go on long after he or the man he’s after are dead.
While Saulnier explores some well-worn territory (the cyclical nature of violence is a given in any revenge film), for all the tense thriller aspects on display, he keeps the focus on the reshaping of Dwight’s fractured soul.
When introduced, Dwight comes across as a gentle but deeply damaged human being. If you were to line up the major characters in this film side by side, Dwight would look like the one least capable of violence. This gentle nature is almost entirely attributable to Blair’s exceptional performance.
Through the first act of the film, Dwight acts as though he is in a fog. He swings from melancholy to confusion and back again from scene to scene. As his history is doled out through the first two acts, it becomes painfully clear that not only were his parents murdered twenty years earlier, so was any hope for Dwight’s future. Psychologically devastated, he disappeared from the mainstream, excluding himself from any possible support system and giving up hope.
Saulnier subtly plays with the fact that while Dwight is hardly the right guy for the mission he takes on, his quest for revenge does provide him with a focus he obviously has not had in decades. While he turns against his nature to carry out acts of violence, Dwight discovers a way to feel whole again, even if the person he has become is not someone who can or should exist in his old life. His is one of the most surprising and complete character arcs I’ve seen in a film in many years.
At the same time that the film takes the audience on Dwight’s emotional journey out of the wilderness and into something much darker, on a simple plot level, it’s a tense little thriller. From the difficulty of obtaining a gun to the horrible intimacy of killing another human being with a knife, Saulnier squeezes every ounce of suspense from scenes that never go where the audience expects them. This allows a darkly comedic streak to run through the film and keeps it from being too ugly to watch.
While the film’s revenge thriller plot does run like clockwork, it is the emotional extremes that Dwight goes to and Blair’s pitch-perfect performance that gives it staying power. Dwight certainly affected me in ways that I didn’t anticipate. And here is where I get into sticky personal territory. If you don’t wish to read about my emotional state of mind in relation to the movie, now’s your chance to jump ship.
I found myself identifying with Dwight on a painfully personal level during the first act of the film. Having only recently come to terms with depression that has had a very negative impact on my life, I completely understood that sense of the confusion and panic brought about by suddenly having focus. It’s a frightening transition to make from a state of mind that is destructive yet consistent to the uncertainty of a future that is suddenly possible by taking action.
Obviously, my sense of taking action—in seeking out help from a professional—is completely different from Dwight’s destructive actions. But I’ve recently experienced that feeling of coming out of a fog and dealing with the fallout of avoiding my problems for decades. While I’m sure I would have sympathized with Dwight had I not been dealing with my own issues, that added personal dimension that I brought into the movie made it hit me that much harder on a gut emotional level. To me, that elevates Blue Ruin from a great film to the level of great art.
I don’t mean to make the film sound like a downer that only exists as a form of catharsis for those in the audience dealing with their own issues. It’s a smart and exactingly constructed film—the type I wish more independent directors were making. It’s playing in a limited theatrical release and on VOD, so there’s not a reason to miss out on it.
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