Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eved Plumb, David W. Thompson
Running Time: 90 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
There's a scene in the revenge thriller Blue Ruin where the petrified protagonist attempts to remove an arrow from his leg. He can't do it. And when you really stop to think about it, there's absolutely no reason why he should succeed. We take it for granted that movie characters can just do things like that on a whim. The entire sequence represents everything that's right with writer/director Jeremy Saulnier's Kickstarter-funded film, taking a common sense approach to logical storytelling.
Rather than a murderous vigilante on the loose hell-bent on revenge, we have someone who behaves as many of us would in the same situation. He has no plan. He's scared. He's in over his head. It's nice to see that not only acknowledged, but effectively dramatized to deliver a more compelling experience. This isn't an idiot plot and these aren't idiot characters making decisions only to fit the needs of the script. I believed almost everything that happened in this movie could have really occurred, to the point that you half-expect to discover it was actually inspired by true events.
Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a bearded, homeless drifter living out of his rusted blue Buick in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Scouring through trash cans and dumpsters to get by, his daily routine is interrupted by a local cop who gives him some troubling news. Wade Cleland, the man who murdered his parents, is set to be released from prison after serving over a decade. With vengeance on his mind, he follows the newly freed Wade and makes poor attempts to to procure a murder weapon, eventually finding success.
Despite lacking any kind of plan, he's able to sloppily take Wade out, but in such a way that it puts him in considerably more danger than if he'd left things alone. Now a fugitive the run from the remaining Cleland family members, he now must not only protect himself, but his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) and her two kids. And he'll have to rely on every resource he can find to withstand the seemingly insurmountable threat that's about to bare down, even if that means finding the courage to again strike first.
While it completely subverts expectations, the actual act of revenge comes early enough that it's not a spoiler to reveal that's it's incompetently carried out by our nervous, panicked protagonist. Only it's the worst kind of revenge, providing no relief or satisfaction because Dwight will have the consequences of what he's done weighing over him, as well as the immediate danger he's put his own sister and her family in. Deliberate and methodically paced, there's a palpable sense of suspense bubbling under every scene since this guy has no idea what he's gotten himself into or how to get out.
Much like he's presumably gotten along up to this point, Dwight has to rely on only his resourcefulness to outsmart the Cleland family and Saulnier is clever in how he finds ways for his screenplay to do this that don't involve stretching credibility or relying on typical revenge movie tropes. Dwight won't be outmuscling or intimidating anyone, so he leans on whatever happens to be at his disposal. In one instance it's childhood friend William (David W. Thompson), who helps him out while still letting him know that this whole thing just seems wrong. And coming from someone who seems like they've been around this block before, it's a particularly unsettling statement.
Having an unknown Macon Blair cast as the lead helps immensely, further solidifying the everyman quality that makes us pull for Dwight's survival. When we first see him, his scruffy, Bonnaroo escapee appearance is off-putting, but there's still the sense of a kind, scared soul under that beard. And when he loses the facial hair out of necessity, our focus turns to Blair's face, whose giant, bewildered eyes convey the fear and desperation inside as he fights against becoming what he must in order to survive.
The entire situation has forced him to become someone he isn't, or was deep down without knowing it. And that revelation is scary. You get the sense that out of a moral obligation he's just trying to complete a job, albeit an ugly one. What Blair brings with his masterfully understated performance is the possibility that at a Dwight could reside in all of us if a similar set of circumstances lined up. In fact, you could argue the entire film is meant to hold up a mirror up and force us to examine what our actions would be. And through it all Dwight still can't seem to commit. Hesitation is his worst enemy.
It's debatable whether revealing key details concerning Dwight's murdered parents and the Clelands adds to the film or was unnecessary information better left alone. That said, I understand why Saulnier did it, showing that in situations like this there are sometimes two sides to the story and often no one is completely innocent. It's a lesson Dwight learns as continues on his journey, consciously choosing whether he should continue or end an already vicious cycle of violence. While the action escalates in the midst of all this, it never flies off the rails or feels like a revenge movie, maintaining its plausibility right up until the final scene.
Authenticity like this is rare since most thrillers of this sort are almost always drenched in over-the-top genre conventions, with acting, writing, and dialogue turned to eleven for maximum impact. This can be entertaining, but the truth is far more unsettling, as Saulnier ratchets up the tension with sheer, straight forward realism, opting for a bare bones treatment that glues our eyes to the screen when it becomes increasingly clear just how painfully relatable the seemingly unrelatable Dwight is. For him, revenge is only the beginning. It's the fallout from choosing it that's far worse.