There is a moment in Blue Ruin when a character tells Dwight (Macon Blair) that when you aim a gun at someone, don't bother making speeches. It's the best advice anyone can give Dwight, for he he has a lot on his mind that he wants to get out. He doesn't heed the advice, though. It seems he can't aim his gun without running his mouth a little. Watching this movie made me wonder how much all of our lives could be improved if we'd just learn to point the gun and shoot.
Blue Ruin is Dwight's revenge tale. His family is embroiled in a terrible feud with the Clelands, a rough family whose patriarch once had an affair with Dwight's mother. Blood has been spilled. As far as the score goes, the Clelands are ahead. Both of Dwight's parents have been killed.
The plot reveals itself in dribs and drabs, as if we're learning the story by overhearing bits of conversations. Most of the key events happened in the past. The first time we see Dwight, he's a beach bum, sleeping in his car, a light blue Pontiac shitbox that I imagine is the blue ruin of the title. He breaks into homes so he can bathe in the tubs of strangers, and seems to navigate through life like a rat. He's been driven underground by the feud. He may have gone a little crazy. Upon learning that the most murderous member of the enemy clan is getting out of prison, Dwight begins plotting. He catches up to the guy and kills him in a public bathroom. Dwight's not a natural born killer, but he's willing to learn. If he seemed like a ghost at the beginning of the movie, getting revenge appears to bring him back to life.
Meanwhile, as a trail of crimson increases in Dwight's wake, we learn more of the story, namely, that there's a lot more to it than Dwight knows. He learns along with us, but by the time all the facts are out, he's become trigger happy. Killing may not solve anything, but it makes him feel better. Fearing that other members of the Cleland bunch may seek their own revenge, Dwight hunkers down for battle.
Director Jeremy Saulnier's background as a cinematographer comes through in the movie. The camera work is elegant, and I especially loved the image of Dwight eating on the beach, the bright lights of a small carnival seen in the distance. Saulnier's script plods at times, but it's smart. He's not trying to knock our brains out, he's telling a story. The movie feels heavy, like the way it must feel when someone is waiting out a chance to get even. Yet, there are several interesting touches, such as when Dwight breaks into a car and steals a gun. Finding the gun equipped with a safety block that will prevent him from firing it, he uses a crowbar to bash the lock apart. But in bashing the lock, he inadvertently destroys the gun. It's a quietly frustrating scene, the sort of thing we might see in an old Italian neo-realist film. The movie is also strangely deadpan - I don't think anyone says a word for the first 15 or 20 minutes.
Blair is the key to the movie's appeal. I remember him from an excellent little obscurity called Gretchen (2007) where he played a troubled kid. He doesn't act often, but he should. As Dwight, he manifests a kind of sad rage. He's not a steely eyed assassin, he's just a regular guy settling some old scores. By the end, we can see on his face that he's emotionally overwhelmed by all he has done. There are other good performances, including Kevin Kolack as a member of the Clelands, and Devin Ratray as Ben Gaffney, a friend who helps Dwight learn the fundamentals of firearms. Bonus points to anyone who recognizes former 'Brady Bunch' star Eve Plumb as the mother of the Clelands.
Blue Ruin has been a film festival darling in recent months, winning awards and creating great word of mouth. The initial reception has been positive. It's not great - the heaviness Saulnier strives to achieve sometimes slows it too much, and the bleak denouement feels predictable - but it has a unique feel, and Blair gives one of the finest, most understated performances of the season. Imagine a man who has been utterly drained by his circumstances and has nothing left to give, yet he has to give even more. That's Blair in this movie.