An old polaroid photograph, spinning under the harsh glare of a microwave bulb, catches on fire, a salacious image evaporating from its surface in coils of murky smoke. The picture is destroyed, but the memory of the moment lingers in the minds of the people in the photograph. Has this present act of destruction imbued past moments with greater meaning? Such poignant moments of contemplation punctuate Blue Ruin, a crowd funded art house thriller, elevating it above its revenge genre roots, and creating an insightful yet heart pounding tale that builds to a gut wrenching climax. Writer, director and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier performs a high wire act, balancing an engaging and compassionate human drama about duty and obligation with a cold and distant tone which underscores the story’s nihilistic message.
The blue of the title is an omnipresent force in the film, both with regards to the washed out colour palette which deviates from the genre’s conventional darkness, as well as in the perpetually lugubrious protagonist Dwight, to whom we are first introduced as he scavenges for food from the dumpsters on the periphery of a rundown boardwalk fairground. Portrayed with a wide eyed animalistic quality by the superb Macon Blair, Dwight remains enigmatic for much of the film, as details of his family’s tragic past are gradually revealed, and we see him transformed from the shell-shocked outcast of the opening scenes into an ambiguously reluctant vigilante attempting to balance his family’s present safety with his duty to avenge their past. The decision to withhold the entirety of Dwight’s motivations from the audience for much of the film keeps the audience at a distance, and so despite our sympathy we remain consistently apprehensive of our animalistic protagonist. This disconnect allows the pain inflicted against Dwight’s enemies to register more strongly with the audience, which adds emotional texture. The film is carried by Blair’s stunningly confident performance, which seethes with melancholic despair.
Dwight’s passionless quest for vengeance reinforces the film’s oppressive coldness. It is no coincidence that Dwight’s mission to avenge his family sees him acquire a light blue shirt and a cleaner haircut. He begins to resemble an average white-collar family man, and so Saulnier illustrates how upholding societal bonds requires Dwight to transgress against society itself.Indeed, every character in the film is operating under a sense of obligation to forces greater than themselves, with the film’s backdrop of endless American wastelands underscoring the its examination of liberty and the restricted nature of personal freedom.
Throughout the film, Saulnier shrewdly restricts his camera’s movements to an unnaturally slow pace, with shots that creep through the wide open but deserted settings maintaining a scene of sombre dread that is magnificently sustained across the entire 90 minute running time. Every scene, be it a terse discussion in a diner, or one of the film’s stunningly executed home invasion set pieces, is constructed so as to simmer with threat and malice. In the protracted finale that takes place in a secluded lake house, every doorway or darkened corner lying just out of focus becomes a potential hiding place. Still, the film is aware of the ridiculousness of its situations, such as when Dwight attempts a quick getaway from a crime scene in a white limousine with passengers still trapped in the back, which is played both as a moment of black comedy, but also as a means of reigniting the tension briefly lost in the violent catharsis of the previous scene. It is this mastery in manipulating the audience and sustaining tension that allows the film to feel excruciatingly taut, despite the languorous tone and simple plotting.
Blue Ruin is a masterful piece of American filmmaking that speaks to both genre aficionados and art house junkies. In the film’s dilapidated heartland setting, the script finds ample thematic territory regarding the individual’s connection through societal bonds, duty and shared pasts. Its flawless execution of a slow narrative build aside, it is Blue Ruin’s gratifying resolution that will ensure that it lingers in the minds of its audience, long after their heart rates have returned to normal.