Fantastic Fest 2013 Review: Blue Ruin


When you can’t let sleeping dogs lie

If you were to do a search for the term “blue ruin” online you would find it to mean either “low-end gin” or of something being a “complete and utter ruin.” Well, Jeremy Saulnier’s sophomore effort in the director’s chair does not revolve around making gin. But the story, and the direction it takes, does lean closer to a state of complete desolation.

Macon Blair stars as Dwight, a middle-aged bum with a tumbleweed beard covering much of his face. He makes his debut in not-so-grand fashion, beginning to take a bath in a house we assume is his. When the owners come back home, he hightails out of the bathroom window. A vagrant who lives out of a 1990 Pontiac Bonneville – a rustbucket if there ever was one – Dwight has developed a system of resourcefulness when it comes to survival. It may not exactly be sound planning on his part, but his ability to live outside the conforts most of us take for granted is commendable.

When he leaves the Delaware shoreline to return to his rural Virginia hometown it’s because he fears that recent prison parolee Will Cleland Jr. will come after him and his sister.

Saulnier subtly sets up the score to be settled without outright disclosing the facts as to why. This helps to lure the audience as we follow Dwight as he follows Will and his family from prison to a nearby bar. Slowly making his way into the bar from the rear entrance, Dwight, armed with a small blade, slides into a bathroom stall where he waits to initiate a short, if fatal, blow.

What could have easily been the ending to a video short ends up becoming a bigger family feud as the Cleland clan comes looking for Dwight. Fearing that they may get to his sister to get to him, Dwight becomes a would-be protector, and a not-so-bright one at that. At one point he takes an arrow to the leg and attempts to fix the wound himself. This allows for a little levity in the form of buying the necessary supplies and trying to play off handing the clerk a wad of bills, including a blood-covered Washington. When the do-it-yourself surgical procedure proves ineffective, Dwight’s ho-hum look is priceless making us love his Everyman character that much more.

Blair is great in a role that will be overlooked by Academy voters, because performances in vigilante flicks are too lowbrow to be of merit – at least to the voting class. His Dwight character isn’t dumb but his fallibility at certain tasks inevitably gives Blue Ruin that much more tension.

For a revenge flick Saulnier keeps the proceedings relatively subdued; no more than twenty bullets are fired. His decision to have Dwight vanquish the man who he believed caused much suffering to his family early on was a nice subversion of the expected. For it to become the jumping off point to Dwight going from haggard beach bum to clean-shaven vigilante was also a welcomed surprise.

Revenge films may not be the genre that I relish most, but it’s hard to ignore the sort of wish fulfillment that exists for those that love it. Everyone at one time or another has wanted payback of some kind. Though common sense prevails in most cases. So to see what becomes of a man that lets hate dictate reason, and his refusal to let sleeping dogs lie, is interesting.

Along the way Dwight is aided by old high school friend, Ben (Devin Ratray, aka Buzz from Home Alone!), a war veteran who knows the score. So he gives Dwight a gun and tells him that if he points it at someone to shoot – no monologues just pull the trigger. Sound advice.

Blue Ruin has the requisite bloodlust but it isn’t an excessive amount; it fits with the story overall. However, there was one holy crap moment at the press screening I attended where most in attendance did a “whoa” that would have impressed Keanu Reeves.

This may only be Saulnier’s second picture (his first was Murder Party), but his direction makes it seem like he’s a seasoned pro. Taking its cue from revenge films of the ‘70s, Blue Ruin is a vengeance-fueled tale with no frills. And its setting, migrating from Dwight’s familiar surroundings to open pastures and a wooded cabin, gives off a “country noir” vibe. Not quite Daniel Woodrell country noir, but it remains a strong thriller and one of my favorites of the festival.

Writer/Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Notable Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidne Anderson

Tags: ,