EASILY IN MY TOP 3 FAVORITE COLORS OF RUIN...
Living out of his car and rummaging for food, Dwight seems to have settled into his life as a drifter with no home or foundation. His existence is soon disrupted when he finds out that a man from his past is being released from prison. He sets into motion a plan for violent revenge that may be easy to get into, but not so much to get out of.
From its description, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Blue Ruin is just another entry into the over- crowded revenge-thriller genre. And, seeing that it hits many of the familiar beats, it has every chance to be exactly what you expect it to be. Fortunately for us, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier ignores each of those opportunities and, instead gives us an incredibly original and powerfully riveting new take on an oft-told tale. In fact, at the point where most revenge stories are reaching their climax, this one is just beginning, as would be the case if something along these lines were to ever actually happen.
One of the wisest moves that Saulnier pulls off here is his belief in the rule of “show, don’t tell.” As the film begins, we’re given a glimpse of Dwight’s life - he lives out of a bullet-ridden car, he breaks into homes to shower and clean up, and he gets by on whatever scraps he can find. We don’t immediately know how he ended up here, and it doesn’t matter. We’re dished out bits of information (including why Dwight seeks revenge, which I won’t reveal here) as Saulnier sees fit. This strategy of not over-explaining things works wonders. We’re given a chance to get to know Dwight as the man that he has ended up now, and there’s no rush getting to the reasons why he came to be that way. The audience gets to figure things out as we go along (but, don't worry, all questions are answered by the end).
As Dwight, Macon Blair gives an absolutely stunning performance. He doesn’t have an easy job to pull off here, but he does so beautifully. Besides being in just about every frame of the film, he is tasked with winning over the audience without us really knowing who he is. His eyes carry more backstory than a hundred flashbacks could possibly reveal. His performance is very subtle and understated, where many in that position go for loud and brutish. In fact, his smallish, wiry stature makes the film that much more believable. While a muscle-bound action hero would easily plow his way through any and all bad guys in his way, Dwight proves to be an amateur at best at what he has set out to do.
But, the action set-pieces are not the order of the day here, anyway. While there are a couple of pretty violent moments, with some fairly gory aftermaths, the focus here is strictly on character development and the emotional toll that comes with devoting your life to revenge. Sure, there is a good share of death here, but Saulnier is more interested in exploring the toll it takes on someone to actually kill another man. Violence glorification is removed to make way for the human experience that comes with it. Take, for example, the familiar scene in which our hero dramatically changes his look as he sets out on his "mission." In most films, it happens late in the game and represents the lead's change from everyman into the requisite "badass." Here, it happens early and has the opposite effect as it signifies Dwight's re-entry into humanity.
There are also plenty of twists and turns here that, rather than elicit “he was dead the whole time” type gasps from the audience, serve to make Dwight, and the viewer, further question the morality and repercussions of the actions he performs. When watching a revenge thriller, we root for the hero because we, ourselves, could picture ourselves in a “revenge fantasy” as we vicariously watch him carry out deeds we could never do ourselves. In Blue Ruin, however, we end up rooting for Dwight because our own morality is also at stake. Sometimes, we may even root for him to not choose the violent route as we know it will only lead to more violence.
Supporting performances are also quite strong. There are really only two other actors that spend any significant amount of time onscreen (although, look for an effective cameo from Eve Plumb), but they certainly hold their own. Devin Ratray portrays a former school friend of Dwight’s that winds up being almost an enabler for what’s going on. In what could have very easily turned into a role riddled with stereotypes, Ratray makes Ben both sympathetic and funny. Amy Hargreaves, as Dwight’s sister, also makes quite an impact in her limited time. As mentioned, we’re only given out information in tiny doses, so when we first meet Sam, she comes across a bit cold and distant to her brother. It says a lot about her performance that Hargreaves is able to still pull the audience’s support. We may not yet know why, but we’re confident that she has earned every bit of her character’s emotional wreckage.
I can’t say enough good things about Blue Ruin, but I’m going to stop here (well, at the end of this paragraph). As far as the story goes, I’ve told you nothing outside of the first fifteen minutes, and, quite frankly, you’ll be done a disservice if anyone else gives it away for you. Starting with the framework of a familiar genre but using that as a springboard for the unexpected, Saulnier, anchored by an absolutely fantastic performance by Macon Blair, has crafted a film that is, at times, dramatic, darkly funny, powerful, and almost unbearably tense. Blue Ruin will surely still be on my “best of 2014” list in eight months.