Blue Ruin, screening as part of AFI Fest’s American Independent series, is a small film that simmers with anger, sadness, confusion, impulsiveness, and regret. Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Macon Blair plays a beach bum who returns home after his parents’ murderer is released from prison. For the first quarter of the film, we don’t know hardly anything about him, only that he is resourceful and does not require much to get by. It is only after he enacts his revenge on the killer, shaves, changes his clothes, and goes to visit his sister, that he actually becomes the character of Dwight, and that is only the beginning of the story. But, even still, Dwight is a blank slate to be imprinted on. He was a beach bum as a result of his parents’ murder, and now he is who he is as a result of carrying out his act of revenge. Blair is soft-spoken and has wonderfully expressive eyes and soft features that hide a quiet, determined intensity. He is incredibly ordinary and average, which makes him a very relatable character and his actions all the more extraordinary, if not more difficult.
This is a genre film, a revenge film to be more specific, but it is also a drama. It is an indie but also a crowd pleaser. Blue Ruin is a very personal, intimate story told on a small scale that makes it easy for you to get close to it. The movie unfolds organically, it is not highly stylized, and, because of that, there is nothing to pull you out of the story or break your gaze. Instead, as Dwight tries to figure out how all of this is going to end, you get drawn in deeper and deeper, until Dwight only has a handful of options left, options that are barely within his control. The movie crackles with suspense, because we see everything through Dwight’s eyes, and so what he doesn’t know, we don’t know. Throughout much of the film, we and Dwight are aware that something terrible could happen at any moment or be waiting around any corner, and this is heightened, because from the outset we know that Dwight is working outside of what he knows – he is working from a place of emotion rather than a place of skill or knowledge. It is that emotional core that brings a very raw naturalism to his character and to the movie as a whole.
The middle of the film is wonderful as Dwight thinks about what his actions have led to, are still leading up to, and the horrible realization that revenge only begets revenge. His original plan, if it can be called that, is fueled by emotion, and while it is stealthy, it is not thought out, and he has not thought about what might happen afterwards. Thinking and planning comes to him more as the film goes on, but in a way it is too late, because he has already activated the feud and only later finds he has to go to even more extreme measures to end it. Remarkably brooding, with great music that perfectly impacts the action, Blue Ruin got the biggest, most honest applause of anything I had seen so far at the festival. The film is reminiscent of Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories, another superb indie revenge film, though both are markedly different in their tone, and there is something more genre and violent here. The movie doesn’t shy away from blood or violence, but it doesn’t glorify it either – it is just as graphic as it would be in real life.
Introspective, emotionally rich, violent, and, at times, even funny, Blue Ruin keeps you engrossed as Dwight’s revenge and subsequent contingency plans become more and more complex, and he discovers that revenge is never cut and dry. His actions have consequences he never expected, especially since his initial actions were controlled by his emotions and not reason. As Blue Ruin moves towards it eventual conclusion, inaction is no longer an option for Dwight, and there is no comfort to be found in his revenge, but instead only regret, and the small hope that somewhere, beyond the violence, forgiveness can still exist.