Blue Ruin is a great revenge movie, pretty much because it doesn’t fit the mold of a great revenge movie. In it, the target — the villain who must be vanquished, the object of the hero’s obsession — is confronted and dealt with before we even have a good grasp on who the hero is, or what’s going on. As such, the focus is on the aftermath: the consequences of killing someone, of Hammurabi’s eye-for-an-eye justice. Yet amid all the bloodshed on screen, there’s quite a bit of dark humor and a what might be a message about violence in America.
Director Jeremy Saulnier just plops you into the story. The camera follows a drifter named Dwight (Macon Blair) has he lives on the eastern seaboard out of a dilapidated blue sedan. Hence the title. It’s unclear why he’s there or what he’s doing until a cop tells him that the man in prison for killing his parents is getting released. That old car is then kicked into gear, and so is the story. From here, the tension only rises. As full-on vendetta (family blood feud) ensues, the only time you’re not clenching your fists is when you’re straight-up squirming. The gore, for a low-budget film, is more than convincing, and Blair deserves credit for bringing it all to life. His massive, child-like eyes can turn, in an instant, from liquid spheres of collected calm to golf balls bulging with pain and terror.
Saulnier, who also wrote and shot Blue Ruin, is perfect with his pacing. Never is there an offbeat, and the slower establishing moments have a haunting visual beauty. One sequence in particular echoes the glorious American highway shots of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. But Saulnier’s real triumph comes through in Blue Ruin‘s balance. He’s able to shape a harsh, gory story about vengeance, and punctuate it with such understated humor that it feels like something the Coen brothers might have done. There’s also a deeply American quality to the film. The plain, terse dialog combined with the abundance of weapons in people’s homes produce a rural American landscape where the inhabitants are bent on taking matters into their own hands. At first, this seems romantic, but by the bloodbath climax, one questions what such do-it-yourself violence really accomplishes. Because when your enemy is your neighbor, you can’t kill him without making a lot more enemies. And when innocent people (or kids) end up in the cross hairs, revenge stops looking like justice.