The great success of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (2013) is that it exists with feet in two camps, and manages to satisfy on both fronts. It is a gripping, wince-inducing, bladder-holding suspense thriller, as well as a meditative slow-burner of a character study.
It’s a neat trick. And it places this lean 90 minute film firmly in the tradition of film noir, exploring the ‘why’ and the ‘what happens next’ of a sudden, unexpected act of violence, then following the inevitable chain of events ruthlessly through to the end without once flinching away.
Also true to its roots in film noir, Macon Blair plays the central character of Dwight Evans with the meek desperation of a terrified everyman, who instead of rising to the plot’s ever-worsening challenges, fails miserably, creating the unholy ‘Blue Ruin’ of the title.
Did you ever imagine yourself challenged by the ruthless violence of the world’s evildoers? Reckon you’ll step up to the plate and discover previously unknown qualities within yourself? Turn yourself into a roaring rampage of revenge?
Well, I hate to break it to you, but you won’t. ‘Cause you’re a coward. And you watch too many of the wrong types of movies, and your head’s full of macho nonsense. Deep down in your soul you know that you would fail. You would make things worse before they ever got better. And that, my friend, is the way the world is — ain’t nothing you or I can do about it.
Or, as Dwight’s sister tells him, “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not. You’re weak.”
When we meet Dwight, he is a shabby, bearded drifter bathing in other people’s bathtubs, scavenging from garbage cans and living in his dilapidated, battery-less car (another blue ruin) on the beach. We don’t know how he got there, but we know that he is settled in his life. He has a ‘job’ collecting bottles from the beach for their deposits, and has decked his car out with everything he clearly feels he needs. (One of his needs is obviously to stay away from people.)
Like the man, the opening of the movie is wordless, with a wealth of expositional information conveyed solely visually, even as further questions are being raised by what we see. It is the first clue as to how Saulnier has managed to pull off his neat trick of combining a thrilling fast-paced revenge plot with slow and meditative character development. It is lean and muscular storytelling at its finest.
When a kindly cop takes Dwight into the station, she makes it clear he’s not in trouble. She says she wants him to be in a safe place when he hears something. We are told only that ‘he’ is being released from prison. The rest of the background story is left for later, to be drip-fed to the audience as the plot requires. Dwight stares over the cop’s shoulder and her dialogue fades off into a distorted, abstract sound. This subtle, simple film technique both conveys Dwight’s sudden fear and anger and confusion, as well as cleverly leaving the audience in the lurch as to what exactly is happening.
The scene is quiet and gentle, but there is definitely one foot depressing the accelerator, and the viewer is given no choice but to follow on. Our sympathy for Dwight is created by direct access to his emotional experience. We, like Dwight, are now uncertain and anxious. From now on — without knowing the whys and the wherefores of his situation, or even whether Dwight himself is to blame for something awful — the audience is firmly on his side. We are complicit in a potentially muddied moral maze.
(Like I said before, baby, welcome to the grubby world of noir …)
Hell, I could go on. I could cite other scenes and explain to you how subtle, clever, exciting, blackly-funny and heart-stopping they all are. But it would be silly of me to over-express the movie’s ingenuity. The fact is that its genius is not that it’s a complex film. It is simple, like any other profound and beautiful thing, and it can be enjoyed for its simplicity as much as for the hard work that has obviously gone into its creation.
It is a revenge thriller with violence as its theme. But it is sensitive as well as tough, with enough common sense not to allow its characters to hide behind absolute moral certainty. Whether consciously or not, this lesson is one that has been carried over from the heyday of film noir. And that lesson is that violence is a mess.
In the same way that even a modern viewer can watch a classic film noir without reading the countless essays that have been penned by the world’s scholars and film historians, Blue Ruin has enough to excite the popcorn crowd as well as all the art bores.
It’s a real classic of modern neo-noir.