Review: Blue Ruin

Rich Morgan, ’14

Blue Ruin is the movie that I didn’t know I had been waiting for. It is the anti-Captain America. In a summer sure to be riddled with high-profile sci-fi and action blockbusters, Blue Ruin is the sort of slow-burning, small-scale curio that cleanses the palate and reminds us of the value of indie cinema (not to be confused with the vaguely hipster, Lucky Strike-smoking, derivatively quirky kind of indie cinema that wishes it could be Wes Anderson).

So what exactly is Blue Ruin? To be honest, I wasn’t even sure until a few nights ago. It is, in many ways, a work rooted in the tropes of the revenge genre, and yet it also manages to defy easy categorization. Enter Dwight, the film’s protagonist—an aimless, bushy-bearded vagabond who wanders the Atlantic coast. He lives a largely uneventful existence—that is, until word reaches him that the man convicted of killing his parents has been released from prison. What follows is a quest for vengeance that spirals out of control as eye is traded for eye and the body count slowly ratchets skyward.

It’s a simple enough set-up, to be sure, but the film’s minimalism turns out to be a tremendous boon. With a sparse screenplay, a small cast of characters, and bare yet careful composition, Blue Ruin seems to have taken lessons from the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. The camera creeps like claustrophobia, the lighting is stark and atmospheric, and the unbearable, blistering buildup to the inevitable altercations make for a harrowing, immensely absorbing experience. As the minutes tick by, the tension continues to mount—and tension is a merit that goes so seriously overlooked in large-scale films. You won’t find any virtuoso displays of CGI wizardry, but it is truly remarkable how a single slit throat in Blue Ruin can make the final thirty minutes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier seem like a slap on the wrist.

Now, that’s not to say there’s anything intrinsically wrong with superhero movies and the like. As a matter of fact, I rather enjoyed the most recent Marvel release—which is rather odd considering how immensely I disliked The Avengers. But as Travis Trombley wrote in his review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, “a film that, by its very nature, will make as much in toy sales as it does in box office revenue can only do so much.” And that, ironically enough, is one of the advantages of working in small-scale cinema: the fact that Blue Ruin does not have to pander to popular sensibilities actually facilitates further creative liberties.

Liberated from major market fads, director Jeremy Saulnier is free to both entertain typical American bloodlust while also condemning—or, at the very least, criticizing—it. Like sex, violence sells, whether we want to admit it or not. By rendering acts of violence in such a simultaneously compelling and repulsive fashion, Saulnier effectively implicates the audience in the atrocities committed onscreen. This intimacy separates Blue Ruin from more large-scale set pieces. When an entire city is ravaged in The Avengers, it’s called entertainment; when Dwight rams a knife through a man’s temple in Blue Ruin, however, it’s called appalling. Blue Ruin ultimately exposes American culture’s gun-crazy and fetishistic fixations on violence. It is an explosively dynamic and uneasy treatment of violence that is boasted by Blue Ruin, calling into question the ways in which we perceive violence and revenge and urging us to reevaluate those perceptions.

Now, that’s not to say that Blue Ruin is a flawless film. Characters can feel a little thin at times (though perhaps that’s the point) and a couple other inconsistencies mar an otherwise excellent journey, but not once did this feel like the effort of a second-time director. The acting is uniformly excellent, the photography is evocative and moody, and the level of craft exhibited feels assured, confident, and crisp. If nothing else, Blue Ruin heralds the arrival of a tremendously talented filmmaker. It may not be a film that will irrevocably change the cinematic landscape, but it refreshes the senses in the doldrums of summer and promises that great things may very well be on the horizon. It reminds me why I love films and why we so desperately need young, ambitious talents to challenge us and shake us out of complacency.

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