A little gem of sentimentalism in Blue Ruin

A little gem of sentimentalism in Blue Ruin

Every now and then a genuine American independent film comes along that is written and directed by an unknown director, stars an unknown actor, is shot on a shoestring budget and turns out to be the best film of the month, if not the year to date. This week, we have such a film in Blue Ruin, written, directed and shot by cinematographer-turned Writer/Director Jeremy Saulnier.

For the past 15 years Saulnier has been on a mission to find a film that would showcase his own talents (his only feature film, the no-budget Murder Party, did not) and find a worthy part for his childhood friend from Alexandria, Virginia, Macon Blair. Blue Ruin, which transforms the revenge thriller genre while respecting its tenets, is a delectable ‘mission accomplished.’

The opening ten minutes of Blue Ruin are a silent wonder. Against Saulnier’s sensitive and stunning cinematography, we watch a bearded and empty-eyed vagrant sneak into an empty house for a bath, forage through rubbish bins for food, and sleep in a derelict old Pontiac, with just enough blue paint left on it to lay claim to the film’s title.

When the man is summoned to the police station, we are treated to the first of many surprises as the kindly police officer (Sidné Anderson) reassures, the man, now given the name of Dwight, that he has done nothing wrong. The officer apologetically informs Dwight that someone has been released from prison.  For the first time we see emotion in Dwight’s face and it resembles shock, rage and terror.

Respectably dressed and shaven we hardly recognise Dwight as he embarks on a bloody revenge saga.  But what makes this one so very different is that Dwight is no Navy Seal, assassin or former heavy weight boxer, but an ordinary, sensitive guy whose life fell apart after a family feud resulted in the murder of his parents.

Out of his depth, Dwight is untrained but motivated, inexperienced but naturally resourceful.  His unbearably tense cat and mouse game with the Cleland clan merges black humour merged with authentically bloody and visceral violence not seen since the marvellous Scandinavian thriller Head Hunters two years ago.

After tracking down the released Cleland, Dwight drives to his estranged sister Sam’s (Amy Hargreaves) house to break the news. Their conversation, in a sad, soulless diner, is startling in its touching and convincing freshness, so natural that it seems unscripted and unrehearsed. After packing off Sam and her kids to a safer place, Dwight fortifies and booby-traps her home (which belongs to Saulnier’s parents) to await the inevitable consequences of his act

Be prepared for some gore. In a scene that bears the hallmarks of an instant classic, we sees Dwight trying to remove an arrow from his thigh with force and pliers, before ending up in the emergency ward of the local hospital.   Bowing to the genre, Dwight makes a quick retreat before he is healed.

Such is Saulnier’s talent that the slower-paced scenes of tender and well-written dialogue are every bit as riveting as the tense and frantic action sequences, and equally convincing.  Dwight’s reunion with his old high school bubby is, alone, worth the price of admission. Ben Gaffney’s (Devin Ratray) sprawling, ramshackle ranch is complete with an arsenal of guns that seems as natural as a garage in this Virginia backwater.

Devin Ratray might be familiar from small roles in films from Home Alone to the more recent Side Effects, and Nebraska, but here he shines as the non-judgmental friend who doesn’t ask too many questions and, after years of separation, comes to the aid of a friend in need.  This welcome interlude, with some understated humour, fortifies us for what is to come.

Saulnier will not be the first or last talented filmmaker to come unstuck trying to end his film, although it’s a treat to see Eve Plumb from the Brady Bunch again in the role of the fierce Kris Cleland.  But this expository and unsatisfactory ending introduces an unwarranted layer of morality and a touch of noble sentimentalism that is unworthy of the rest of a terrific little gem.

Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer