US, France / 90 minutes / color / filmscience, Neighborhood Watch, Lab of Madness, Paradise City, memento, RADiUS-TWC Dir & Scr & Cine: Jeremy Saulnier Pr: Anish Savjani, Richard Peete, Vincent Savino Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidné Anderson, Abby Horton, Bonnie Johnson, Sandy Barnett.
A rural neonoir of a quality that any Hollywood studio would be happy to brag about, this is not only an indie production but an indie production crowdfounded in part through Kickstarter. From such a description you might expect there to be something amateurish about the final product, but not so. There’s not a weak performance here, and there’s no failing on technical grounds. Little wonder Blue Ruin has received a bundle of accolades, such as the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, the Special Jury Award at Marrakech and a Top Ten listing by the USA’s National Board of Review; it’s a movie that’s seriously good.
Dwight (Blair) lives out of his car, subsisting by scavenging and petty theft, breaking into homes while the families are out so he can have the occasional bath.
One day a friendly cop (Anderson) explains to him that Wade Cleland Jr (Barnett), the man convicted years ago of murdering Dwight’s parents, is about to be released from prison. Dwight, despite his habitual timidity and diffidence, murders Wade, thereby bringing down upon himself the wrath of the rest of the disreputable Cleland family—all but the youngster William (Thompson), with whom Dwight forms a curious bond. Realizing that the Clelands’ thirst for vengeance could endanger his sister Sam Evans (Hargreaves) and her kids, Dwight warns them to clear out of the family home, then prepares to defend himself against whatever the Clelands might throw at him . . .
Of several powerful sequences, the one that stands out most in my mind occurs when Dwight, who’s been driving around with Teddy Cleland (Kolack) locked in the trunk, pulls up in a lonely place to try to talk things through in a civilized fashion. He conducts the conversation while pointing a rifle at his prisoner, who sits in the trunk such that we see only his seemingly disembodied upper half; the effect’s reminiscent of scenes in Jennifer Lynch’s BOXING HELENA (1993). Needless to say, Teddy being a hardened ne’er-do-well and Dwight strictly an amateur. Teddy defies the odds to get his hands on the gun. Luckily for Dwight, his old pal Ben Gaffney (Ratray) has been keeping the situation under observation.
During that conversation, by the way, it emerges that it wasn’t in reality Wade Cleland who killed Dwight’s parents, but that Wade took the fall for someone else—that the two families had a more complexly twined history than we knew. Just as we’re starting to feel some sympathy for the dead Wade, however, there’s this exchange:
Dwight: “[William] said something about Wade, said he didn’t think he’d hurt anyone.”
Teddy: “Coupla dead niggers might disagree.”
No tears need be wasted on Wade, then, or in due course on Teddy. Even so, the movie does later go out of its way to remind us that, vile though the Clelands might collectively be, they’re nonetheless human beings with their own lives and loves. The movie conveys this point by letting us watch Dwight’s face as he paws through the Cleland family’s photo album, slowly realizing that his foes are not merely vicious monsters: there’s another side to them.
Even so, the movie’s sole focus is Blair’s Dwight, as he fumbles his way through this revenge tragedy. All the other cast members have at most transient supporting roles. Really there are two Dwights, at least in terms of physical appearance, because when we first meet the man he’s a beach bum with scraggly hair and beard to match the stereotype. Later he gives himself a haircut and shaves off the beard, emerging as a sort of mild-mannered Nathan Lane figure. Blair handles the role extremely well, so that we identify with the character even while cringing at his obvious inadequacies; he was nominated in the Breakthrough Actor category for a Gotham Independent Film Award.
Blue Ruin seems to bear a thematic similarity to Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS (1971), in that both show how the mildest of guys, if provoked beyond measure, can react in the most violent of ways. Dwight doesn’t actually have to murder Wade—that’s just a matter of vengeance—but thereafter he’s backed into a corner by people who should theoretically make mincemeat of him. One way or another he subverts such expectations. Even though, as is the way of revenge tragedies, there can be no happy ending for him, this nonentity manages to make his mark, for right or wrong, upon the world.