Vigilante films have flourished in American cinema for quite a while now, from the saga of Paul Kersey in the Death Wish series to more contemporary entries like Man on Fire and Taken, all with their own specific brands of volatility. One thing that most entries in the genre share in common is that they typically revolve around the protagonist either being or transforming into a capable, shrewd revenge-seeker, charging through his targets in a form of retribution fantasy. Such isn't the case for Blue Ruin, the tale of a willful vagabond who's drawn out of isolation when a murderer to whom he's connected gets released from jail. Director Jeremy Saulnier's fusion of arthouse and grindhouse sensibilities funnels into a unexpectedly poignant yarn about the crippling nature of fear and almost-obligatory wrath, seen through the eyes of the very definition of an improbable hero. With measured doses of violence and a vein of suspense built around the main character's unexaggerated ineptitude, it's an absorbing divergence from what's expected of the genre.
Blue Ruin begins with a homeless, heavily-bearded man, Dwight (Macon Blair), shacking up in a vacant seaside house, where his respite from a life of scavenging and sleeping in his rusted car gets halted by a vacationing family, presumably the owners. He's thrust back onto the beaches and under the boardwalks of his everyday life for us to witness, until a police officer with knowledge of his identity notifies him that somebody has been released from jail, somebody responsible for a double murder. Who this is, precisely, and what they've done becomes part of the film's gradual unraveling mystery, a secret which Jeremy Saulnier cleverly guards until the time's right. The information about the convict's release is enough to send Dwight, a seemingly modest and docile person, into a panic of internal turmoil, destination preparation, and the search for some kind of weaponry. Once he gets his revenge for these personal wrongs, what's Dwight going to do about his well-being, and will his act of vengeance be met with repercussions?
Director Saulnier places a lot of faith in his audience to observe underlying details in Blue Ruin without them being explicitly tied together, relishing the nearly-wordlessly abstract ways he connects the dots of Dwight's mystery and detached life. The film etches out an inspired underlying backstory for the main character through the ways he sustains himself -- recycling, freeganism, thievery -- as he's forced out of his life of seclusion, where his minuscule talents are tested in his voyage towards the convict's area of release. Saulnier's script cleverly subverts the audience's expectations of how Dwight might resolve or escape situations, replacing the rousing gravitas of a determined man on a mission with doses of realism that obstruct his drive towards revenge. Getting injured or cornered in a situation doesn't simply lead to obligatory scenes of this hero gracefully conquering the odds, and that's part of the intelligence navigating the story.
That's because Dwight is the epitome of an unlikely hero and ill-equipped vigilante: he's an everyman who disappeared when times grew tough, developing elementary skills of street survival that the necessity of his self-imposed seclusion forced upon him. One look upon his scraggly beard and tattered clothes suggests a different turn of events in his life, no luck and hard knocks, but that slowly gets replaced as the details of his previous life come into focus, about the deeds of the convict he fears and the family whom he abandoned. Macon Blair's performance cannot receive enough acknowledgment for credibly presenting a likably inept, anxious individual who feels obligated -- both to his history and to his own crippling anger -- to claim vengeance, whose inner conflict over what's coming next can be seen in the way he struggles to procure a gun, handle a blade, and clumsily hide in the shadows. Our experiences with him are smartly voyeuristic at first, a hands-off and neutral approach that lets the audience's perceptions of his moral compass go where they will.
As Saulnier's strikingly natural photography depicts the flight of this distraught and vengeful man through American's landscape, embellished with looming fog and wheat fields passing alongside his symbolically neglected excuse for a car, Blue Ruin accelerates to Dwight's destination in Delaware ... and then promptly flips its intentions in the aftermath. Instead of drawing out the process of getting payback, the film focuses on the cascade of incidents following Dwight's irrational actions, building a steady and disquieting simmer of responsive tension while he contacts those who were once close to him -- including his best friend (Devin Ratray), an out-of-practice ex-Marine -- and prepares for backlash from those aligned with the convict. His lack of competence in high-tension situations creates an absorbing ricochet of developments that have been expertly composed and edited to embrace the mood, given force by curt, hardnosed bouts of violence way outside of Dwight's comfort zone. It creates the kind of electric atmosphere where roughly twenty words from the right person can both cement and upend everything known about Dwight's story, meshing routine Hollywood-caliber exposition and livewire tension with startling, yet credible, twists.
Through the course of its restrained intensity, Blue Ruin undercuts the potential for exploitation in its thrills with eloquent personal storytelling, taking its tone closer to a fusion of Jeff Nichols' depiction of rural conflicts and the Coen Brothers' raucous drama. Dwight's inability to cope with grief and his decision to live off the grid enrich the bumps along his morally-questionable journey, where he struggles with the credibility of others and some somewhat philosophical musings about the changeableness of spoken truth, the decision to abandon memories and identity for safety, and the boundary separating justifiable and vain redemption. His story becomes more interested in emotional catharsis built around those ideas than satisfying bloodlust and the fantasy of retaliation, which guides the film down a path that emphasizes Dwight's fallibility and limits. The fact that this homeless man with wide, weatherworn eyes isn't a composed ex-military renegade or trained assassin becomes director Saulnier's strongest asset as Blue Ruin approaches its methodically tense exhale of a conclusion, leaving its mark as a fine piece of versatile indie filmmaking.
Video and Audio:
Given Jeremy Saulnier's background as a cinematographer, Blue Ruin's naturalistic and casually-poetic visual beauty shouldn't come as a surprise, captured on the capable budget-minded Canon C300 digital camera. Anchor Bay's transfer of its nimble photography to Blu-ray is a resounding, beautiful success: the 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment adeptly grasps the crisp detail, the color, and resourcefully artful lighting. The slider shots that crawl across and towards fine points in Dwight's beaten-up car and along the rural landscapes are impeccably solid, while the handheld sequences never leave a pixel out of place and lovingly focus on details in facial hair and sweat, speckled glass, text and firearms. Splashes of vibrant greens in foliage, radiant light-blues, and the warm yellow glow of suburb lighting are lush yet under control, while skin tones are remarkably natural and reactive to lighting. There are certain sequences with noticeable digital grain and overly-light contrast; overall, however, the image remains incredibly clean, sports astonishingly capable and detail-aware black levels, and moves around ever-so gracefully.
Blue Ruin also carries an earthy, textural sound design that I found particularly absorbing, which the DTS-HD Master Audio capably projects. The sounds of flipped light switches and dropped crowbars on the road, the banging of a fist and yelling within a car's trunk, the unsettling sounds of a wound being spread open, and the stream of a sniper bullet come across tremendously clear and innate -- especially those of Dwight's rumbling, ramshackle car in motion, dexterously pushing on the bass levels with minimal distortion. Ambience of bugs in the forest and the waves crashing at the ocean expand to the rear channels for an incredibly full and immersive effect, especially considering the low-budget nature of the film, while the pulsing and moody score fills the surround and bass channels without drowning out the sound effects. Dialogue remains clear as well, if a bit restrained on a few occasions, while moments of stillness in the atmosphere are free of distortion. English and Spanish subtitles are available.
Commentary with Director Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair:
The actor-director duo, who are long-term friends and collaborators, get together for a discussion that's sporadically informative yet somewhat low-energy and tongue-tied. They dive into anticipated topics about access to locations, setting up material that ultimately wasn't used, and craftily working around their production budget limitations, which gives a moderate amount of insight into director Saulnier's creative process and Macon Blair's focus in the role of Dwight. As they continue to crack open beers, they stay relatively focused -- if a bit lukewarm -- in their scene-by-scene progression through the film, revealing quick takeaways around each scene and discussing the merits of the actors' performances as they appear. Not the smoothest or most absorbing track, but it's worth a listen for some of the exploration of the film's details.
Alongside the commentary, we've also got the Making of Blue Ruin (18:56, 16x9 HD) piece that ends up being a well-structured, albeit somewhat brief, assembly feature, starting with the history behind Macon and Jeremy's relationship in filmmaking and branching into getting Blue Ruin off the ground in the wake of their first film's not-quite-success. It leads into production discussion and filming in familiar hometown locations, casting big and small names for their roles (including a great story behind convincing the cast to work with an unknown like Macon Blair), some subtle storyboard-to-screen comparisons alongside stories of getting the film off the ground, and a very honest story about the difficulties -- and failures -- of the editing process.
Also included is a series of Deleted Scenes (4:59, 16x9 HD), as well as the original Camera Test (3:52,16x9 HD) that conveys the film's mood in a specific way to pull in actors and producers.
Sure, the gritty, breathless turns in Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin are gripping because they intentionally and intelligently zag where most revenge-thrillers zig, but that's only part of the equation. It's the physical and emotional wear-and-tear on Dwight himself that elevates this indie, along with the film's slow-reveal of the rationale behind his disappearance following a traumatic event in his family's life. Polished, lyrical cinematography tracks a fine range of organic performances, especially from Macon Blair as the clueless vengeance-seeking vagabond, as director Saulnier expertly balances the buzzing energy of vengeance cinema with the measured, introspective drama of a character study. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray presents the film's audiovisual merits just about flawlessly, and it comes with a decent commentary and making-of featurette. Very Highly Recommended.