Revenge films are in vogue. And as much as I enjoy Denzel Washington exacting vengeance in the genre classic Man on Fire, or laugh at the studios coming up with another excuse for Liam Neeson to hunt down his targets in Taken 3, or look forward to Mads Mikkelsen taking a break from chewing up the scenery in Hannibal to provide some vengeance spaghetti Western style in The Salvation; I find the genre pretty forgettable. With no shortage of such films the question is what makes Blue Ruin memorable?
Writer/Director Jeremy Saulnier deserves most of the credit by focusing the story on someone completely lacking the “special set of skills” that Neesson is constantly highlighting. The main character Dwight, has no training, isn’t an ex-soldier, former CIA operative, computer genius, or mixed martial arts master. His plans for vengeance are poorly thought out in their execution and completely blind to potential consequences. Saulnier knows the audience is taking this journey along with Dwight, and it is specifically Dwight’s lack of skills that heightens the tension. There is absolutely no reason to believe Dwight is capable of escaping a bar fight much less fighting his way to a target.
Saulnier has taken his cues from veteran directors and the film is better for it. There are moments that call to mind both Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men. Saulnier doesn’t ape the Coens but he has learned from their moves. One stalking scene in particular with an improvised weapon and no plan, clearly belongs in the same universe as Blood Simple. That’s high praise.
While people get shot, there are no gunfights in the film. Saulnier avoids action tropes because the people the film portrays are as scared as they are angry. Desperation drives the characters. And that desperation gives the scenes a greater resonance than the action deserves.
Saulnier smartly cast the perfect every man in actor Macon Blair as Dwight. Blair looks like a skinny Nathan Lane with the type of build and facial expressions that signify he is primarily a threat to the office doughnuts. It is easy to imagine, given a different tone, a comedic version of Blue Ruin (a feeling reinforced by the fact that Saulnier’s and Blair’s first collaboration was a mistaken identity horror comedy called Murder Party). There is a well-played scene where Dwight attempts to remove a lock from a revolver. His ineptness would be comic if he wasn’t so single-minded in purpose.
Blair brings enough sorrow to Dwight’s often bewildered expression that you can feel the weight of what he’s unleashed build on him. He is a character who purposefully chose to be homeless in order to cut himself off from the world. The path of vengeance he finds himself on should be clear of distractions. But it is muddy. He is truly perplexed at how quickly things spiral out of his control and doggedly determined to try to make them right; even if right simply means keeping his extended family safe. He even innately grasps the futility of the path he is on, saying:
“I don’t know how this is going to end. But I’d like it to.”
What I appreciated most was that while Saulnier has plenty of chances to up the ante viscerally in Blue Ruin, he instead allows a sense of melancholy to permeate the film. The melancholy moments linger on Dwight, providing the film its Blue element, as he tries to make some sense of what has occurred. The violence, like the Ruin, comes quickly at the end.