He doesn’t seem like someone to fear, this vagrant with the overgrown beard, the oversized T-shirt, the unkempt hair. There’s more resignation than rage in his eyes, and when he speaks, he does so hesitantly, in a voice that’s soft and at a volume that’s just above a murmur. But Dwight (Macon Blair), the unlikely force of chaos that drives Blue Ruin, is a dangerous man. That much becomes clear when, after an ominous opening passage, he enters the dingy restroom of a local watering hole, lies patiently in wait, and then leaps from the darkness, committing an act of sudden, savage violence. These are the actions of a man who has nothing to lose, and who’s spent years thinking about the everything he has lost, turning it over and over in his head, until only one solution seems sensible: Make them pay. As his bloody reckoning reveals, Dwight is someone to fear. But so too are the people he makes pay. And they may be better at this whole reckoning thing than he is.
To call Blue Ruin a “revenge thriller” would be accurate but somehow insufficient, as doing so makes it sound ordinary and crass. Some have already compared the film to the work of the Coen brothers, by which they must mean No Country For Old Men; the bloodshed comes nearly as fast and hard as it did there, and there’s a comparable focus on the details of life on the run—on staking out a location, or acquiring a weapon, or getting away from somewhere fast. But in its unusual cross section of moods, Blue Ruin rarely resembles anything but itself. Much of the singularity can be attributed to the film’s atypical hero, surely one of the year’s great characters. Blair makes Dwight driven but hapless, locating a lot of sly comedy in his imperfect foray into crime: He disables a vehicle, only to realize he needs it as a makeshift getaway car; later, he makes an amateur attempt to treat his own leg wound. (Don’t try his method at home.) But Dwight is also a lost soul, his face sunken with ancient grief, and Blair invests him with the reckless forward momentum of someone running on last-ditch desperation.
Written, directed, and lensed by Jeremy Saulnier, who shoots for fellow indie maverick Matthew Porterfield (I Used To Be Darker), Blue Ruin is as visually striking as one might expect a film helmed by a talented cinematographer to be. But Saulnier has more than a great eye; he’s got the soul of a natural filmmaker—a patience and confidence, evident from the mysterious opening scenes onward. In this, his second feature, Saulnier turns his native Virginia into a backdrop of mundane menace and crams his actors’ mouths with poetically plainspoken fighting words. (If comparisons must be made, think of it as a third cousin to Winter’s Bone.) Is the film more than an artfully spare Hatfield and McCoy yarn, a treat for discerning genre buffs? Maybe not, but there’s a surprising poignancy to Saulnier’s meditation on the way violence creeps into the hearts of the bereaved, spreading across the branches of a family tree like a poison. Revenge thrillers are rarely so resonant, flavorful, or electrifying.