This could very well be the best independent film of the year. Blue Ruin, lensed and cut by Jeremy Saulnier is the revenge tale we all know. A man who has been wronged years past comes back to give those who have wronged him their comeuppance. The stroke of genius comes in finding out that there is far more to this whole vengeance thing than just an eye-for-an-eye. Dominoes, once they are set in motion, tend to fall and when they do everything crashes down. This is a revenge tale that features the same sort of tropes we know but they are subverted at every turn. This is not only a look one man's descent into the never-ending cycle of violence but also the toll of exacting one's retribution on another living person.
Yarns of revenge tend to be stylized and feature exciting characters like Uma Thurman as The Bride or Charlie Bronson in Deathwish. Our "hero" is a man named Dwight Evans (Macon Blair). He is homeless, bearded and just trying to get by day-to-day. He never utters a word for the first 15-20 minutes of the film and is more like you or I than blood-soaked justice dispensing cinematic heroes of the past. His eyes tell the entire story as those wide gulfs of brown swirl with fear and rage. He gets the news, only a few minutes in, that a man is being released from prison. That sets the narrative in motion but really only gets us started on the journey into the heart of darkness.
Macon Blair, an actor who happens to be the director's (Saulnier) best friend, has done some small work here and there but never anything on this scale. He is in every single scene of the film and is mesmerizing. He is the Every-Man we know yet hate to identify with. It's all too real. We, as the audience, know that if we were thrust into this situation where there is only seems to be one way out? We would be approaching it with the same trepidation as Dwight. He is twitchy, unnerved and baby-faced. Once he gets rid of the beard and long hair he looks more like a junior accountant than potential killer. Macon's Dwight is an amalgam of rage and fear and, what makes it all the better, feels real. He makes mistakes, lots of them, and tries to be that fearless warrior he needs to be when the killing time arrives. He doesn't succeed much of the time and that is what sticks with you. You want to root for this guy yet as the plot develops you start to question his motives.
His siste (Amy Hargreaves) , who seems only slightly less affected by the tragedy enacted by the man released from prison that kickstarts this whole thing, wants Macon to complete his task. She also judges him though. "If you were crazy I could forgive you. But you're not. You're just weak." I didn't know just how powerful that would be in the context of the film. I had heard it in the trailer but, man, did it pack a punch within. We want him to succeed but really isn't this the worst sort of pursuit? Dwight isn't, by his nature, a violent man. He is more of a mealy-mouthed pacifist than anything else. Nothing about him is worth noting and, often, he's just invisible. He likes it that. This revenge business, despite seeming worthwhile, really is an awful spiral to push yourself down. His sister sees it but does he see it too? He does. That is what makes this film work on so many levels. It is that revenge film we know but it isn't. Dwight, scared yet willing to commit to this murderous adventure, knows this is wrong. But is there any other way? He can see no other options.
A guy like that needs help right? That's where Devin Ratray (yes the same guy who played Buzz in the Home Alone movies) comes in. He is an old high school chum of Dwight's who works a bouncer at a local night club. He also served as a Marine and, well, has a substantial armory. Every killer needs a gun right? What made Ratray's part work so well is that for all his exuberance of being able to lend Dwight a hand in his dirty work he doesn't seem to really care at all about what he needs it for. He knows that Dwight will be killing someone maybe multiple people but, really, it's all about the glory of getting to use those blessed guns. Much of the film's short supply of laughs are found in the interactions between Ratray and Blair.
Saulnier, who's other feature film is the amateurish Murder Party from 2007, has served as Director of Cinematography on other indies before this like Putty Hill and I Used to Be Darker, has found his voice. He takes the well-worn aesthetics of Southern gothic revenge tale and turns them on their head. This film is the color of a bruise, palettes of muted greens, browns and even blues. Everything is just drenched in sadness and the bursts of violence are brutal, simple and effective. Killing a man is no easy task (this film brought to mind the Hitchcock film Torn Curtain in which Paul Newman and Julie Andrews have quite a time of killing a soldier) and, at times, is presented with a dark comic sensibility that only helps to lighten the proceedings just a hair. Saulnier, if anything, really makes calls back to some of the best parts of the Coen Brothers and even Tarantino flicks. The violence isn't as excessive, by any means, but all the more effective because of the Blood Simple-esque feel to it.