AFI Fest 2013
By Don Simpson | November 14, 2013
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidné Anderson
Dwight (Macon Blair) is a grizzly vagrant living out of a beaten up, blue Pontiac on the Delaware coastline. While sneakily lounging in a bathtub of a vacant vacation home, he may appear like a crazed relative of Charles Manson, but judging from his deep, sorrowful eyes, he means absolutely no harm to anyone. When a police officer takes Dwight into the station, it is only to provide him with a safe haven while informing him that his parents’ murderer — Will Cleland — has been scheduled to be released from prison on parole. This alarming news functions as the catalyst that transforms Dwight from bum-like stasis to a motivated man with a plan. He quickly gets his Pontiac back into driving condition and hits the road to Virginia in an attempt to avenge the murder of his parents. Unfortunately, Dwight’s plan is not as fool-proof as it should be — for one he is unable to acquire a gun — but he throws caution to the wind and goes right for Will’s jugular; and, as soon as Dwight realizes that the Cleland family is not going to contact the police, he concludes that they must be plotting their own kind of revenge. This is a world in which law and order barely exist. The only way to get true retribution for crimes against one’s family is by keeping things “in house” (the universe of Blue Ruin could be a Libertarian Disney World if only guns were easier to access).
Dwight goes through a few psychological transformations during the timeline of Blue Ruin, all of which are apparent deep within his eyes and worn heavily upon his face. The most obvious transformation is his shocking evolution from grizzly man to clean-cut Everyman; as if a switch has been flipped, the drastic alteration of his appearance signifies the changes going on inside of Dwight (or, maybe he just does not want to perpetuate the negative cinematic stereotypes of long shaggy hair and unkempt beards). Dwight is no longer that quiet and timid beach bum. Now that he has had his taste of first blood, Dwight knows that he has opened up the floodgates, both for himself and the Cleland clan. Despite his hope that a family truce might be achieved, Dwight comprehends that there will definitely be more blood spilled, and the chances of his survival are extremely slim at best. With that in mind, Dwight’s only remaining desire is to keep his sister (Amy Hargreaves) and her family safe. Transcending typical revenge fantasy fare, Blue Ruin quickly switches gears to a tale of an average man simply trying to protect his family. Abiding by the philosophy that the best defense is a strong offense, Dwight finally gets his hands on a gun and quickly goes on the attack.
Not afraid to infuse some playfulness into the narrative, Jeremy Saulnier utilizes some classic narrative tropes — some more preposterous than others — from thrillers and horror flicks. All the while, with Macon Blair as his muse, Saulnier studiously re-imagines the revenge fantasy genre. For one, Saulnier’s opinion of Blair’s antihero protagonist is blurred beyond recognition, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions about this character. While it is nearly impossible to not feel some semblance of sympathy for Dwight, it is equally difficult not to severely judge his actions. In Blue Ruin, revenge is, at its emotional core, clumsy and irrational. Steering clear of expository dialogue, Saulnier never allows Dwight to explain his actions. Saulnier smartly avoids the ridiculously dramatic soliloquies that plague most thrillers — to paraphrase Dwight’s high school friend (Devin Ratray), there is no time for speeches, just get right to the killing. So, instead of dialogue, the crux of Blue Ruin is Blair’s face, specifically his eyes, which allow for us to gaze directly into Dwight’s soul.
One of the most talented cinematographers of his generation, Saulnier relies heavily upon his purposeful framing and focus to guide the audience. Blue Ruin is an amazingly gorgeous film to behold, and it is even more impressive that the images signify more than just mere eye candy; the cinematography establishes and defines interpersonal relationships, while soliciting tension and intrigue. Additionally, Saulnier remains admirably steadfast to Dwight’s perspective, never venturing away from his own personal experience; thus giving the film the allusion of being intimately naturalistic, despite the highly fictional flourishes of the aforementioned narrative tropes. Throughout the narrative assembly line of thrilling predicaments, Saulnier is able to maintain a high level of tension thanks in no small part to Dwight’s proven clumsiness and fallibility. Dwight is certainly no John McClane, so we are keenly aware that his mission could fail and he could die at any time.