Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The fourth season of FX’s small-screen Fargo starts, so we’re singling out “Coenesque” movies, i.e. ones influenced by or imitative of the work of those famous sibling filmmakers.
Most attempts to approximate the comic genius of Joel and Ethan Coen crank up the zany—that taste for madcap mayhem, exaggerated hillbilly pratfalls, and flavorful regional vernacular that characterizes so much of the brothers’ genre pastiche. Much rarer are the films that aim to emulate these celebrated writer-directors at their most intense, cynical, and darkly, viciously funny; it’s one thing to organize a screwball heist or caper in the key of Coen, quite another to calibrate your merciless noir to their particular frequency of gallows humor. Jeremy Saulnier, a cold-blooded purveyor of color-coded thrillers, has cited both Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men as influences on his taut second feature, the eccentric revenge thriller Blue Ruin. Remarkably, the comparison is neither off base nor totally unflattering: There is a fair amount of the Coens’ scariest riffs in Saulnier’s relentless tale of the conflict between a bearded vagrant and the family of the man who killed his parents.
Blue Ruin actually suggests what No Country might look like if populated by frazzled fuck-ups of the Fargo variety instead of steely pros like Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh. The film’s anti-hero, Dwight (Macon Blair, who’s since gone on to indulge his own aspirations to the grim side of Coen country), is set on violent retribution but not so equipped to visit it upon his enemies. The act of vengeance that sets the ruthless plot in motion is imprecise in execution, to put it mildly: When Dwight leaps into action from the stall of a strip club bathroom, the ensuing struggle is bloody and sloppy, immediately marking this gaunt, haunted man as a very inexperienced Angel Of Death. And that proves to be the roaring furnace of the film’s tension and humor. Hunted by the Virginia lowlifes with whom he’s ignited a family feud, Dwight makes countless near-fatal mistakes, from popping the tires of a car that could have served as his getaway vehicle to trying to perform a DIY surgery with supplies from a drugstore on the arrow agonizingly embedded in his thigh.
Saulnier never tips the action into full-blown buffoonery—a miscalculation often made by Coens wannabes. Dwight is in way, way over his head, but he’s not a complete yokel idiot. (The decision to lie in wait for his foes at the family house, with nothing but a baseball bat with which to defend himself, arguably suggests otherwise, but “self-destructive” and “stupid” are not interchangeable character flaws.) The novelty of the film, adjacent but not identical to the Coens’ affection for imperfect forays into crime, lies in its understanding that credible haplessness can enhance the suspense of a life-or-death ordeal. After all, wouldn’t the average person inserted into Dwight’s situation be as panicked and foolish and susceptible to horrible injury as he is? Saulnier would take that quality to a nauseating, thrilling new extreme with his next movie, Green Room—and in the process, emerge from under the shadow of his chief influences here. You could now conceivably call a new crime thriller “Saulnier-esque,” provided it featured enough painful cock-ups.