MRR Review: "Blue Ruin"

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A mysterious outsider's quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.
3.5

Rating: R
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: April 25, 2014 (USA)
Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Genre: Thriller

Jeremy Saulnier's second feature film, "Blue Ruin," is a more than welcome entry in the revenge thriller genre. Beyond that, it is a poignant and compelling narrative that deserves to be commended for its balance of moods and exceptional characters.

Although in many ways "Blue Ruin" is firmly a revenge thriller, it is elevated by Saulnier's assured work as director and writer, with the film always seeming to call on the director's prior work as a cinematographer. The lead character, Dwight, is a homeless and nearly mute man played to perfection by Macon Blair. Dwight's parents were killed when he was young. The first few scenes of "Blue Ruin" set up the story in a well-constructed first act that mixes intelligent plot structure with emotional resonance built up through the performances and the way the film is shot. The audience quickly learns that the man who killed Dwight's parents, Wade Cleland, is about to be released from prison when a local police officer notifies Dwight of this fact. The story that unfolds would perhaps be cliché, except for the manner in which Saulnier directs the film. He subtly presses the audience to engage in Dwight's emotional state, to identify with his drive to revenge. He also slowly and consistently complicates the story and characters on moral and narrative levels.

Saulnier may have initially encouraged the audience to root for Dwight on his revenge-seeking mission. What carefully and slowly unfolds in this evenly paced but never boring film is real respect for the intelligence of the audience and an acknowledgment of how typical revenge narratives in the movies might actually play out in real life. The complications that occur in the narrative demand moral reconsideration from viewers. It is not just Dwight that viewers might change their minds about by the end of the film, but the concept and act of revenge itself. "Blue Ruin" still is a revenge thriller, a genre piece, but it is one that unpretentiously, intelligently turns the conventions of the genre on their heads. Even when it seems like viewers are being shown the objects of Dwight's revenge mission as unsophisticated rednecks not too far from those found in the '70s classic "Deliverance," Saulnier is careful to emphasize these characters' humanity, to show that they are not just movie stereotypes but, in the world of the film, real people. 

The question that inevitably comes up is whether or not that's enough. The reason "Blue Ruin" is still a genre piece, a revenge thriller, is that while it complicates the audience's initial support of Dwight's revenge mission, it never truly makes viewers want the revenge itself less. The drive for revenge has been a major draw at the box office for decades and at the theater for much longer. A lot of revenge thrillers, such as the "Death Wish" series, have been criticized for their gleeful exploitation of movie-goers' vengeful tendencies. "Blue Ruin" comes nowhere close to that glee and is just intelligent enough to elevate the genre.

"Blue Ruin" is a remarkable achievement, considering its production cost was just $38,000. It may be easier to comprehend how Saulnier managed to do this in an era that has seen the potential basic costs of making a film decrease due to digital technology and other developments, yet that makes it no less surprising that the film looks as good as it does. Moreover, "Blue Ruin" serves as proof that skill trumps budget when it comes to quality in cinema. It is as involving a thriller and as engaging a drama as any comparable contemporary film, going a long way to demonstrate that films need not be blockbusters inundating viewers with copious explosions or pretentious films aimed strictly at an arthouse audience. Make no mistake, "Blue Ruin" is entertaining and gripping. Because "Blue Ruin" is true to human failings and because it does not portray violence and fight scenes in an unrealistic, glamorized light, it does have more merit than some other films of its kind. It is both stylistically assured and realistic. It's intelligent yet involving on an instinctual, gut level. The film won the 2013 FIPRESCI critics' prize at the Cannes Film Festival for a reason, yet it demands little of its viewers that it does not repay in almost every scene.

"Blue Rain" has shown itself to be worthy of the critical praise it has received. The film is smart, stylish, entertaining and thought-provoking. Director Jeremy Saulnier has created a grand movie-going experience on a shoestring budget, proving that skill in storytelling is still what is most important in movies today.