Somewhere between a coal black American pastoral and the restrained brutality of a Nicolas Winding Refn film, Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is a chilling, minimalist, and bloody revenge thriller and cat and mouse game taking place in bucolic rural and suburban settings. He has a gorgeous eye for messy brutality. That messiness is not only an intricate part of his protagonist’s violent tendencies, but also of the very realistic and purposefully slipshod nature with which the film’s almost biblical cycle of violence plays out.
Dwayne (Macon Blair) has been driven mad after the murder of his parents a decade prior. He lives out of his rusted out 1990 Pontiac Bonneville, growing his beard out and not saying much of anything. Lying in wait for the day the culprit is released, he snaps into action as soon as he hears the news and immediately botches his intended execution as terribly as possible. His vengeance is successful, but he never considered the repercussions, forcing him to go on the run from the murderous family he just pissed off. He also puts his sister and her family in harm’s way as a result of his actions.
Dwayne, in many ways, is a near perfect example of a sympathetic monster. The villains he’s in direct opposition to are irredeemable and reprehensible. He’s clearly suffered a deep trauma that gives him the shuffle and thousand yard stare of a wounded child. For the first thirty minutes or so, Blair barely utters a single word, letting Dwayne’s glazed over, almost mechanical movements and shuffles tell an entire story. What he’s about to do is something Hollywood has romanticized on film for the better part of a century now, but Saulnier and his cast have the smarts to make a genre thriller that takes place in an all too true world where violence only begets more violence regardless of passion or righteous justification.
Dwayne has spent years dwelling on what he would do, but his plan is so simple that it’s easy to see via Blair’s performance just how all encompassing this victim’s hate is towards the people who created him. He’s a blunt instrument created and existing within a nuanced world that has left him to rot. He no longer knows how to relate to his sister (a wonderfully understated Amy Hargreaves), and when he has to lie low and pretend like nothing is wrong even the act of walking like a human being seems to somehow escape him. It’s an exceptionally committed performance that makes one forget they’re even watching a genre film.
Saulnier has crafted the rare thriller that can stay intense without ever feeling the need to mount fast past action sequences or force feed the audience exposition. It certainly owes a lot of Refn’s economic brand of storytelling, but it strips away the flash and style for quieter creepiness and a lot more foreboding sequences that could turn deadly at any moment and without warning. It hits with the impact of an old board with paint chipping off of it and rusty nails sticking out. It’s grand tragedy in its purest form, but also a painfully intimate and poignant portrait of a broken man. There’s nothing pretty or simple about Dwayne’s vengeance, and that’s what makes Saulnier’s work all the more human and tragic.