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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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.

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Blue Ruin (2014)
US/Can release: Apr 25 2014 (VOD same day)
UK/Ire release: May 02 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated RSS (contains revenge served scared)
MPAA: rated R for strong bloody violence, and language
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong bloody violence, bloody injury detail, strong language)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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

  • Oh boy! I hadn’t heard of this… I stopped reading after the first 2 sentences so I can find it and watch it without being spoiled. :D

  • There’s nothing spoilery in my review. I warn when it’s unavoidable for me to do so.

  • Not only do I try to avoid big “S” Spoilers, but also any small “s” spoilers, i.e. information about a movie I plan on seeing. Once I’ve decided to watch it, I prefer to have as little additional info as possible.

    For instance, sometimes just knowing there’s a twist in a movie ruins the twist, etc.

  • I agree! Which is why I am always extra careful.

    But I know what you mean. Not knowing anything about a movie is the best way to approach it.

  • Bob Boatman

    MaryAnn doesn’t spoil movies for anyone. She points out the small gems that are out there, if you follow her. And she was spot on about this little revenge chiller. You had no clue where this thing was going from one minute to the next. Lovely :)

  • Maybe… I got pretty annoyed with it about 20min in for reasons that would be spoilers, and turned it off. I plan to finish it eventually, so we’ll see.

    I would not agree, either, that I have no clue where it’s going next… but I watch a lot of these types of movies. And hey, maybe it’ll surprise me.

  • Bob Boatman

    You have to be patient on this one. You give up on it now, you’re depriving yourself of a really good movie. If you don’t have much of an attention span,
    maybe skip this and go see The Protector 2. Or perhaps Walk Of Shame might be more of what you are looking for. But MaryAnn didn’t give away anything, details or otherwise, about BR.

  • I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here and ignore the implied insult. Instead, I’ll just suggest that, perhaps, it’s okay to enjoy many different kinds of movies. The first THE PROTECTOR was pretty good, if we’re talking about the one with Tony Jaa — lots of great stunts and action. And I’ve heard the second one is pretty good too, if you like that sort of thing. And I don’t see why you wouldn’t. But everybody’s different. I really enjoyed the MIAMI VICE movie for instance.

    Anyways, it wasn’t impatience or boredom that forced me to stop BLUE RUIN early, I was annoyed by it. But I’ll abstain from commenting again until I’ve girded my loins and finished the film. MaryAnn very rarely steers us wrong.

  • Okay now I’ve finished it. I won’t say it was unpredictable, but I did enjoy it after coming to grips with how a protagonist can be so smart and so stupid all at the same time… I think the film takes a few narrative shortcuts to keep the momentum going, but there were definitely some cool scenes.


    I loved the answering machine bit at the end. Very clever. And I also enjoyed how, moments after I said to myself “It’s too bad he doesn’t have an old army buddy to help him out”, he went and found one. I did find it super annoying that he lost his keys at the beginning and sliced up his hand like a dummy, but those two things turned out to either come full circle or not matter at all, respectively, so it’s less annoying in retrospect… But I have a harder time forgiving the film for giving Teddy a moment to conveniently explain the truth before killing Dwight, only to then get killed himself by aforementioned buddy. If you really want to subvert genre expectations, you have Teddy kill Dwight right there and then hunt down Dwight’s sister and family… but then you’ve got NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN I guess….

    Anyway, good recommendation, MaryAnn! :D

  • Maybe I’m alone, but I’ve never had a movie “spoiled” through knowing plot details. Almost every time I’ve watched a classic movie for the first time I’ve been aware of most of the plot, it doesn’t stop me enjoying old films. Is there anyone today who doesn’t know the twists of Psycho or Planet of the Apes? If people are avoiding those films because they think they have nothing to offer beyond their plot details then I feel sorry for them.

  • Danielm80

    I enjoyed The Sixth Sense more because I had been spoiled in advance. I knew from the beginning how stupid the big plot twist was, so I didn’t have to say, “I waited two hours for that?

    On the other hand, Captain America: The Winter Soldier lost most of its dramatic tension for me, because there were very few surprises to anticipate, or dread.

  • You must’ve watched THE SIXTH SENSE many years after it came out, then… for those of us who saw it new in the theater, unspoiled, it was revelatory filmmaking. I think people would only consider it stupid now in light of Shyamalan’s subsequent movies, if they do. But your opinion isn’t invalid, for sure.

  • Must be nice. I find movies a little harder to take when I know or can predict what is happening next. But maybe that’s just a quirk… when I was little i used to read the final page of novels to make sure I knew how it ended so I wouldn’t be scared for the main character — now that I am a grown up I find it more entertaining to not know what is coming in advance. This is why I get annoyed at Game of Thrones readers who tease upcoming plot twists in the show.

    You’ve taken your comment to a little extreme here, which I understand was necessary to make your point. But it doesn’t apply to me. I just said I don’t like knowing anything about a movie if I’m already planning to watch it; say I trust the director or whatnot. Just means I enjoy the mystery. You can feel sorry for me if you want, I suppose, but I’m pretty sure your comment was aimed at an imaginary version of my comment that exists apart from what I actually typed.


  • My comment isn’t meant as a direct response to yourself, rather an observation on the thread. No offence meant.

  • Danielm80

    A child psychologist would have to have certain conversations with a parent, like “Can you fill out this form?” and “I’d like to talk to you about your son.”

    And, more broadly, living in the world requires certain physical activities, like showering and eating and driving a car and paying for items with money. If Bruce Willis’ character were doing those things, people would start to notice. And if he didn’t do those things, then he would start to notice, no matter how strong his denial. So the big plot twist is extraordinarily stupid.

  • RogerBW

    This is a thing that I like films to do: take a story we know, tell that story quickly and economically to establish the setup, and then go beyond it to say something interesting and new. We had no need of yet another generic Southern gothic revenge thriller. I’m glad we didn’t get one.

  • Tonio Kruger

    So Dorothy Parker is in this? ;-)

  • Tonio Kruger

    Well, for what it’s worth, M. Night is not exactly the first film director to use that particular plot twist.

    Though I suppose it would constitute a plot spoiler if I listed all the movies I have seen that have used that twist.

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