There comes a time in your life when you finally, sadly, have to admit: you are not, and will never be, Liam Neeson. That if something precious is Taken from you, you simply don’t have the particular set of skills to get it back or get payback. Your amateur efforts will likely make you a nightmare to people like, well, yourself actually.
No, the harsh truth is, when seeking vengeance, most of us aren’t Neeson’s ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills; nor Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo, nor Maximus Decimus Meridius. We’d be much more like the unfortunate Dwight in lean, mean new thriller Blue Ruin.
OK, perhaps not at first glance. When we meet Dwight, he’s a feral-looking hobo rocking a Tom Hanks/Cast Away look, sneaking baths in empty homes, food from trash bags, eking out an existence in a clapped-out, intriguingly bullet-ridden Pontiac (the blue ruin of the title). It’s only when this clearly traumatized individual is informed that a certain Will Cleland is about to be released from prison that he discovers a sense of purpose. Unfortunately that purpose is to avenge Cleland’s as yet unrevealed crime, by taking his life.
Revenge is one of the most exploited storylines in modern movies (directors like Tarantino or Park Chan-wook with his Vengeance trilogy, seem to have founded entire careers on it), and it’s easy to see why. Done well – Munich, Dead Man’s Shoes, Park’s Old Boy – it can mine rich, murky dramatic terrain. All too frequently though, it’s just a cheap, convenient plot engine far too easily gunned into overdrive, mowing down any moral complexities and ending in righteous, vicarious violence.
But here’s where Blue Ruin steers into less travelled, more fascinating territory. Dwight accomplishes his mission, albeit in gruesomely hapless fashion, after some 20 minutes run time. Which is roughly as far as he’s planned ahead. Then he realises that the crime hasn’t been reported; that the remaining Cleland clan might be taking matters into their own hands. To quote big Liam again, they will look for him. They will find him. And… you know the rest.
When assessing a film you shouldn’t really let the circumstances of its making affect your judgment; whether it cost $200 or $200m, it’s more about what’s realized onscreen. Blue Ruin’s backstory, though, as well as being a triumphant underdog tale – childhood friends Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair risk their savings on a last shot feature, get (partly) crowd-funded and end up Cannes prize-winners – is integral to its character.
The pair might argue their story wouldn’t have deviated even with studio and A-list backing. Still, it’s hard not to imagine how limitations helped hone a slow-drip narrative that focuses on quandaries, moral and practical, that too many flashier films gloss over. How do you get the safety lock off a handgun? What do you really do with an adversary locked in your car trunk? How do you prise a crossbow bolt out of your leg if you’re not Rambo?
Also key is writer-director-cinematographer Saulnier’s casting of his buddy Blair in the main role. When Dwight shaves and smartens up (most movies’ cue that a character is back on track), he looks even less effectual, a weak-chinned schlub, part-Paul Giamatti in Sideways, part-Bud Cort in Harold and Maude, eyes constantly swivelling in wide-eyed panic. While no fool, he’s seriously out of his depth. Sometimes resourceful, sometimes naive, Dwight is always very human and Blair’s blend of resolve and vulnerability makes for a fascinating, atypical lead.
The rest of the largely unknown cast excel too (there’s a neat supporting role for Devin Ratray, one of Nebraska’s meathead cousins, as Dwight’s gun nut ally), but if there’s an MVP, it’s one-man film unit Saulnier. A fine cinematographer on other US indies, his fluid compositions always work to tell the story visually, the shallow focus and slow tracking shots keeping us close to Dwight’s short-sighted, drifting perspective. The unsettling sound design and brooding score are also finely tuned.
The pacing, particularly in the first half, offers a masterclass in ramping up tension. The violence is graphic but purposeful. When a character recoils at seeing someone’s face blown off, he’s told matter-of-factly, “That’s what bullets do.”
If there are any drawbacks, it’s the underlying familiarity of eye-for-an-eye sagas, even those as well executed as this, along with a slightly underwhelming ending. And by cleaving to Dwight’s perspective, his hillbilly adversaries are far more sketchily rendered. But these are relatively minor flaws. This is low-budget filmmaking with high-level skills and some calling card for Saulnier and Blair.
Blue Ruin belies its modest means to deliver gripping tension and an unlikely character study. For all involved, particularly its main filmmaker and lead actor – if not their protagonist – revenge is truly sweet.