Review: Blue Ruin (2013)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #742

Number of Views: One
Release Date: May 17, 2013 (Cannes), April 25, 2014 (US)
Sub-Genre: Neo-Noir/Crime Fiction
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $1,000,000
Box Office: $1,000,000
Running Time: 90 minutes
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Producers: Macon Blair, Tyler Byrne, Richard Peete, Vincent Savino, Alex Orr, Anish Savjani
Screenplay: Jeremy Saulnier
Special Effects: Toby Sells, Katie Middleton, Mark James Ross
Visual Effects: Justin Ball
Cinematography: Jeremy Saulnier
Score: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Editing: Julia Bloch
Studios: The Lab of Madness, Film Science, Neighborhood Watch
Distributor: RADiUS-TWC
Stars: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Eve Plumb, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidné Anderson, Sandy Barnett

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] John Prine “Sweet Revenge”

[2] Brooke Blair & Will Blair “Soundtrack Suite”

An eye for an eye – isn’t that how things work? Perhaps but I’ve never really been one to bear grudges. Indeed in over forty years, I’d struggle to name a single handful of people I’d actually wish to receive their just desserts. It’s just not in my wiring to hold onto all that pent-up furious anger like airport luggage; not when I can place it down in the alloted area and travel light. Sure I’ve been wronged in my time and, in my younger years, may have retaliated. But it’s all just water under the bridge now and I’d rather leave it up to good old karma to do any dirty work, leaving me free to simply enjoy life and not wind up emotionally crippled on account of someone else’s wrongdoing. Some say revenge is a dish best served cold and I don’t buy into that one iota. You see, in my experience, revenge is a dish best unserved. Period.

That said, while it’s easy for me to sit here atop my pedestal of peace and proclaim myself holier than thou, I’ve never had to bury a family member as the direct result of someone else’s calculated misdemeanor. Unless I was ever in that situation, I wouldn’t dream of acting like I know how that kind of life-altering trauma would manifest itself. It’s one thing being big on forgiveness, but quite another following the good book’s advice on exoneration when your entire life has been thrown into perpetual turmoil. Certain wounds don’t heal quite so easily and, while time supposedly aids in this department, there are some wounds too deep and wide for any band-aid that it can administer.

Take Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) for example. Haggard, defeated, and so far down on his luck that it’s safer for him to simply accept the inevitable and give up trying to turn things around – Dwight reached rock bottom many moons ago and could never quite find his way out of his interminable slump.

He lives out of his bullet-ridden car, scavenges for food wherever he can, sneaks into unoccupied houses to bathe, and the only thing to relieve his shoulders of the burden perched upon them like wet clay is his bedraggled beard which looks like it hasn’t seen a trimmer in over a decade. Dwight is officially a ruin and no longer sees that as a downer, purely a fact of life that doesn’t require his blessing to consider itself cast in stone.

If it’s hard to discern a pair of peepers beneath all that dense facial foliage, then we may just be about to provided a rare glimpse. You see, thanks to a little inside need-to-know information from a sympathetic policewoman who takes pity on his raggedy ass, Dwight suddenly has some fresh purpose and a bona fide goal to cling on to for grim life.

Regrettably, the good news ends there, as this bulletin entails the imminent release of the man who murdered his parents in cold blood back when he was a child. Wade Cleland Jr. (Sandy Barnett) was duly convicted for his crimes and has served his sentence accordingly. Hell, for all Dwight knows, he may have been rehabilitated and be about to emerge from the state penitentiary a new man. But none of this interests him in the slightest as he already knows precisely what needs to be done.

First things first, it is high time Dwight returns to his hometown in Virginia for the first time in too many years not to be ashamed of. After trading in some aluminium clutter for cash readies and making himself look a tad more presentable and smidgen less conspicuous, he heads off to face the demons of the past that have haunted him ever since that fateful day.

Naturally, while he’s back on home turf, Dwight has every intention of paying a visit to his estranged sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) but not to play catch up or pick up where they left off. Instead, he intends to inform her of the act he is about to commit after it has been done and dusted, just to warn her of any potential repercussions. You see, Dwight knows full well that his actions may be about to place both Sam and her family in clear and ever-present danger.

Wade may be scum but even the dregs of humanity have to come from some place and the Clelands are well-known for being both well-connected and not to be trifled with. Harm one of theirs and, chances are, they’ll maim three of yours in return. That’s how these kind of transactions traditionally play out and Dwight is under no illusion that it could get decidedly messy from hereon in.

There’s no cunningly devised master plan here; merely gawking like a hawk as his intended victim is released and collected from the jail’s gates, tailing him back to whatever safe house has been organized on his behalf, biding his time until the ideal moment to strike, and winging it. He has no idea how it will feel once he meets his objective or whether it will make him feel the slightest bit less broken. But such trivial detail matters not anymore. As long as he gets the job done, then Dwight’s life work will be complete.

I’ll apply the skids there with regards to synopsis and have barely scratched the surface of what is far more than a simple revenge flick. Blue Ruin is a complex character-driven drama of the uppermost standard and further proof that American director Jeremy Saulnier possesses one of the most unique voices in modern cinema. His 2008 debut Murder Party was positively backlogged with raw potential and this, his sophomore feature, sees him graduate from bright young hopeful to accomplished filmmaker.

Since this premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and scooped him the coveted FIPRESCI Prize, Saulnier has gone on to provide further evidence of his knack for unique storytelling with the excellent Green Room. However, for as impressive as that film was, the fact that this only came about through a Kickstarter campaign makes his achievement all the more extraordinary.

Let’s talk Macon Blair shall we as he has appeared in all three of Saulnier’s works in some capacity and here he is entrusted with the make-or-break leading role. Bearing in mind that he appears in nigh-on every frame here, any weakness in his performance would be magnified tenfold. Viewing events from his perspective as they play out, we have no choice but share his every concern, sweat his ill-considered decisions, feel his bubbling vitriol, and taste his unshakable sorrow.

Despite knowing which end of a rifle goes boom, Dwight is no Dirty Harry. Banking on long overdue good fortune to bail him out of some fairly hellish situations; he can barely spit out a sentence without spluttering and hardly tops up our confidence. Words often fail him and, on the rare occasion he has something meaningful to impart, his stammer is right there on standby to get the better of him. These very human imperfections only serve to endear him to the audience more and Blair’s portrayal is so gently affecting that his well-being becomes our only priority. It’s harder to care for a character who gives less than two shits about their own fate but care is precisely what we do.

While I’ve got my lip gloss on, Devin Ratray weighs in with a brief but memorable turn as Dwight’s firearm savvy old friend and confidant, Ben Gaffney. If there’s one thing Dwight needs right now, and whether he likes it or not, it’s a guardian angel to look out for him. Ben is that cherub and, for all his bloated ego and self-serving bravado, he’ll lay down and die in the dust before seeing his buddy come to harm. He’s also a realist and understands that Dwight’s safe delivery ultimately lays south of his jurisdiction; but it’s astonishing the distance a sniper bullet can cover with Ben’s trigger finger doing the squeezing. Ratray strikes the fine balance between smug and huggable just right and downright deserves his very own moment in the sun.

Blue Ruin may burn slowly but, make absolutely no error, not a solitary one of its 90 minutes will ever be spent idle. Forget the usual “revenge flick” structure as it’s not applicable here and there is ample grey area to ensure that we constantly question both Dwight’s actions and reactions. Resting easy is not on the agenda here; being held utterly captive most certainly is. The fact that I can mention it in the same breath as The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. should offer fair indication of the lofty esteem I hold it in. But Saulnier’s neo-noir masterpiece walks its own dusty trail and I’ll rest easy tonight knowing I got to stroll it with Dwight Evans.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Should you be familiar with Green Room (and if not, I’d recommend making that a priority), then you should be more than aware of his ability to rob us of serenity at any given moment and make that shit wince-worthy. He’s at it again here and the sporadic bursts of no qualms brutality on exhibit cause just as much of a tremor, leaving just as immovable a stain. When it comes, it’s every bit as fleeting as the act would play out in reality and every last blow feels shattering.

Read Blood Simple. Appraisal
Read Murder Party Appraisal
Read Green Room Appraisal
Read A Horrible Way To Die Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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