“I don’t think he did”
The fact Jeremy Saulnier‘s Blue Ruin came together because of a $35,000 Kickstarter only proves how viable crowdsourcing is for cool, effective art to get made for mass consumption. It’s a down and dirty revenge flick written, directed, and lensed by one man who along with his production team maxed out credit cards and refinanced homes to see it come to fruition. How great is that? Better than if the film went nowhere and they all had to declare bankruptcy, but isn’t there a certain appeal to that risk? They had faith in the product and what they could do with barely pennies on the dollar compared to independent shingles out of Hollywood. Not only did they end up winning the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, they ultimately crafted one of the most engrossing films of 2014.
Centering on a vagrant living out of his car on the beach, we meet Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) jumping out of a stranger’s window half-naked because they returned home while he was still using their tub. We watch a day in his life in almost complete silence: him rooting through the dumpster at a local carnival, cutting open a caught fish, and eventually falling asleep to a book in the backseat of his beat-up and shot-out Bonneville. Only when a police officer knocks the next morning for what we assume is a wake up reminder about no loitering does Dwight speak. Officer Eddy (Sidné Anderson) isn’t there to send him away, though. She calls him by his name, takes him to the station, and explains how the man who killed his parents was being released from jail.
Visibly shaken with rage, it’s not hard to understand what his one-track mind desires. Whether in the pawnshop or outside a bar late at night, he desperately seeks a gun to murder the soon-to-be-free Wade Cleland and breathe easy for the first time in years. What he can’t fathom in the moment, however, is the collateral damage such an act would leave in its wake. His sister (Amy Hargreaves‘ Sam) still resides in their childhood home with her two young daughters and his car along with everything the Clelands know about his family all connects to that house. So he must return, get his sister out, and make a stand to ensure her safety no matter the consequences. He’ll give himself up to the police if it means closure, but this squabble is way too personal for that.
There’s a crucial aspect to revenge thrillers that mainstream cinema cannot embrace when the assumption of a happy ending guarantees box office success. While it leaves audiences fuzzy and warm inside, it does nothing for the art. If we cannot believe our antihero is willing to die for his cause, what’s the point? Hell, if he’s an ex-Marine able to dismantle a battalion of ten guys single-handedly, we can’t really find him relatable either. No, the way to invest a theater full of regular Joes seeking escapism before bed and the start of another carbon copy day is to make the character seeking vengeance a broken soul without a shred of knowledge about violence let alone homicide. Only when someone in way over his head continues marching towards his oblivion do you earn your viewers’ respect and attention.
And that’s exactly what Blue Ruin does—unapologetically so. Helped by an approachable performance from Blair as the soft-spoken, constantly unsure Dwight, Saulnier strips down the excess of firefights, explosions, and car chases to pit one ill-equipped man against the hick clan who destroyed his life. He depicts the silent moments of waiting, the hours of anticipation putting Dwight on edge as much as providing him time to decide if he’s okay with what he’s done and is about to do. The fact he makes it so far is courtesy of luck tempered by the pain marking his survival. When he needs assistance he calls the one person who might welcome his voice despite so much time passing (Devin Ratray‘s Ben). And when the moment comes to pull the trigger he only has to think of Sam’s safety.
There aren’t many places for Saulnier to take the story and he never attempts to stretch it out of that range. The players involved know each other, they hold answers to events that started this blood feud, and there’s nowhere to hide as a result. Once the games begin it’s open season—the cops are left out of it and the hit squads against Dwight all have Cleland on their licenses. Death is coming for one or all; the way to stop the carnage is by ending a bloodline. Wade’s brothers Teddy (Kevin Kolack) and Carl (Brent Werzner) have no qualms with such a truth, but Dwight definitely does. All he wants is to ensure the man who murdered his parents breathes his last breath at his hands and possibly to even the score with one more.
Everything following that wasn’t in his plans. Circumstances present themselves in the aftermath of his actions that complicate what once began as an animalistic desire for retribution. The red only clouds judgment for so long before reality returns and shows itself to be more ruthless than the lot of them combined. And through it all we never quite know whether Dwight is going to be able to follow through on his mission or if he’ll survive to have the opportunity to do so at all. He stumbles, falls, gets back up, and discovers no amount of want ensures his ability to perform is possible. One thing’s for sure, though: this man’s dedication to see it to the end. He may fail, he may die, but either way he’s going to do it standing upright and proud.