Blue Ruin review: what fresh hell is this

Blue Ruin green light

A riveting Southern gothic revenge thriller — a suspenseful reinvigoration of the genre — that seems to be over in the first 20 minutes, and then finds horrific new places to take you.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

You know all those action flicks in which tough badasses just want to be left alone but someone done them wrong and now they’re all torn up about how they have to go stalking for bloody, violent revenge that they’d really rather not have to do, honestly? Yeah, none of those movies can ever hope to ring true ever again. Not after Blue Ruin, which has shot out of nowhere to reinvigorate the genre in a way that shouldn’t be unexpected, but is.

What’s startling here? A genuine sense of humanity, and a genuine sense of the horror of killing another human being. There is total fear and utter grief here, visceral pain and bloody mess. This is as emotionally raw as violent movies ever get. Blue Ruin is gruesome without being gratuitous, and dizzying in the vulnerability of our flesh. How little physical effort, we seem to be asked to ponder, it takes to kill someone: just thrust the knife, or pull the trigger. And how much mental effort. So much.

How little, too, it takes to transform how we see a person. When we meet Dwight, he is living on the knife edge of life: sleeping in his car, an ancient, rusted Pontiac; dumpster diving for his meals. Breaking in to “respectable” people’s houses to have a bath. He is not the sort of person the world looks kindly upon. And yet, almost instantly, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier toys with our expectations for Dwight. A police car descends on his Pontiac; a cop rousts him from his sleep. Surely he’s in trouble… But the cop (Sidné Anderson) knows him, and is kindly. She has bad news: someone he knows is about to be released from prison.

And then Saulnier and star Macon Blair — who looks like a young Nathan Lane minus the goofy and plus a whole lotta terrified rage and abject, pitiable desperation — take us along on a far more profound transformation for Dwight. Except for that brief exchange with the cop, there is no dialogue for the first 20 minutes or so of Blue Ruin, as Dwight takes himself, literally quivering with panic for much of it, toward an encounter with the new parolee. We don’t know what their relationship is, or why Dwight is so afraid — or, indeed, what happened to push him out of the world, which we begin to suspect was a result of some great trauma connected to these new events.

But if you think you suspect where Blue Ruin is going to end up, you’re probably wrong. Everything that the movies have trained you to anticipate in a riveting Southern gothic revenge thriller has come and gone in those first 20 minutes. And then it finds horrific new places to take you.

Saulnier effortlessly assembles extraordinary moments of suspense out of the tiniest of details: the care Dwight takes with the key to his car; the sound of Dwight’s heartbeat pulsing on the soundtrack in tandem with his fear; even the blackly comic resolve Dwight finds to cope with physical pain. The filmmaker dismantles stereotypes with aplomb. A household armory elicited chuckles among the crowd of British critics with whom I saw the film; I’m sure it looked like a jokey prod at American gun-nuttery. But the man behind those guns (Devin Ratray: The Cake Eaters) is no cartoon, and his stolid solemnity underscores the authenticity of the awful things we’re witnessing. There is no cinematic splashiness here. Just bald, dreadful realness.

I think we may be witnessing the arrival of a major new American filmmaker in Saulnier. He has served as cinematographer on a handful of small films, and he has directed one previous feature, 2007’s Murder Party, which is available on Amazon Instant Video in the U.S., and I might have to check it out. But Blue Ruin isn’t just a really good film that’s really entertaining (if in a grim way). It actually has new things to say in a well-worn genre, things that force us to reconsider the genre. It’s pushing that genre out of its groove and onto a new path. I’d love to see what else Saulnier has to say that we haven’t heard before.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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