Haunting, Gorgeous, Violent Arthouse Thrills
Violence in film often teeters back and forth between the glamorously heroic and the terrifyingly horrific, with both interpretations often used to elicit extreme emotional reactions from audiences. But rarely does cinematic violence reflect the brutality and humanity present in the real world. To see such a unique interpretation on film is to be gripped with an immediacy and fragility that is unforgettable.
Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s 2014 arthouse thriller Blue Ruin is primarily concerned with the human toll of violence and the never-ending spiral that can come from an act of murder. Centered on actor Macon Blair’s Dwight Evans, Blue Ruin finds its central protagonist seeking out the man who murdered his parents after learning that he has been released from prison. But rather than focus on his hunt for the murderer, Saulnier deals primarily with the fallout of his protagonist’s sloppily-executed murder and its ripple effects. With unflinching violence that is never glamorous and often achingly human, Blue Ruin is a thriller that is just as much about the soul of a man as it is about nerve-jangling scenes of tension.
As with his first film Murder Party and Blue Ruin-follow-up Green Room, Saulnier explores a fascination with non-violent people being forced into violent acts. In Blue Ruin, acts of violence are committed in sloppy fashion and with lingering consequences for everyone involved. Dwight is far from an action star and Blair’s quiet, introspective performance shows him to be a broken, real human being despite the circumstances he finds himself in. There are no heroic moments to be found here, only desperate struggles for survival. That central fragility makes the thrills more visceral and the action more shocking.
Having a protagonist as clumsy, sloppy, and prone to poor decisions as Dwight could have made Blue Ruin into an infuriating experience, full of frustrating scenes that would cause audiences to scream at their unlistening hero to do what so many others have done in past action films. But Saulnier quickly establishes that this is not a classic Hollywood action film but rather a story that intends to be as close to the real world as possible. Dwight is not a hero fighting for a just cause. Rather, he’s a broken shell of a man whose unthinking violence creates a far worse situation. With a face like an average man and the disposition of a person who has never recovered from long-ago trauma, Blair portrays Dwight as someone who shouldn’t be in the situation he is now in, yet must keep pressing forward anyway. With long stretches of little dialogue, Blair is able to convey complex emotion with his face and body language. Starting out as a bearded drifter and eventually turning into a clean-shaven and sloppy engine of violence, Blair never loses the humanity of his character, which in turn makes the films twists and turns far more gripping.
In both big and small moments, Blue Ruin finds itself focused on sudden complications that the typical Hollywood thriller would never consider for a moment. In fact, the entire film is kickstarted by such complications. It’s no big spoiler to say that Dwight murders his parents’ killer during the film’s first act, which in and of itself is a major subversion of the prototypical revenge film. But in doing so, Dwight makes a series of minor mistakes that could happen to anyone fueled by adrenaline and executing a sudden act of violence. As occurs in the rest of the film, these small errors snowball into greater violence and losses. But Saulnier isn’t looking to cruelly punish his lead character for his unthinking violence. This is a sad cycle of killing perpetuated by each person in it. Everyone involved knows the consequences sooner or later.
From its very start, Saulnier frames Blue Ruin in a quiet and melancholic tone that helps keep the focus on its characters rather than its action. This is a gorgeously shot movie that uses its miniscule Kickstarer-funded budget to full effect, making each shot of broken down homes, Dwight’s rusted-out car, and poor Virginia neighborhoods look as beautiful as possible. Moments of brutal violence punctuate the quiet humanity on display and the lonesome woods and washed-out beaches of Virginia reflect the desolate soul of its main character. This is a film that seeks to toss out the clichés of modern action thrillers while keeping the general framework of the genre. In doing so, Saulnier works to consistently subvert expectations. Those looking for a film that checks off each element of a revenge thriller while find themselves consistently challenged and possibly infuriated. But in doing so, Blue Ruin defies the trappings of genre in order to make a far more effective film. Make no mistake, there are numerous pulse-racing scenes that thrum with vibrant energy, it’s just that the path there and their ultimate execution have much more in common with the indie film scene than the mainstream.
Are the villains of Blue Ruin as uniquely human as Dwight? Most certainly not. But then again, the film is not interested in exploring them as characters. In fact, Saulnier rarely features them in close up at all throughout the film’s runtime. Dwight is rarely out of the film for more than a few moments, which means that everything and everyone is seen from the perspective of his journey, even if Saulnier allows audiences to view both protagonist and antagonists in a more objective standpoint than the lead character. By keeping viewers in the dark like Dwight, the bewildering nature of his situation extends to the audience.
A keen eye for character details, a pulsating human heart at the center of the narrative, and an unrelenting, never-straying tone that grips the film from start to finish, Blue Ruin is a work is singular, clear vision that lingers long after its end.