Never underestimate the power of an indie thriller. Some of the most suspenseful, thought-provoking and supremely satisfying thrillers of the past few years have come from unknown directors working on shoe-string budgets with no-name casts and only their ideas to guide them. Blue Ruin, from Jeremy Saulnier and starring Macon Blair, may not look like much on the surface – but trust me, this all-American tale of good, old-fashioned vengeance has the kick of a mule.
It’s different from other revenge thrillers almost immediately, opening with images of its gaunt, haggard protagonist that evoke horror and pity in equal measure. Dwight (Blair) is not your typical hero – he’s a beach bum, a vagrant, deeply troubled and twisted in ways that he can’t comprehend but that are plain to see from his sunken eyes, slightly open jaw and messy beard. In no way is this is a guy who’s easily to root for – he’s borderline feral, a man who has lost touch, both with himself and the outside world.
Soon, we learn that Dwight has good reason to feel aimless. His parents were savagely murdered years earlier, scuttling any chance he may have had at a happy life. The sympathy of a local deputy suggests that no one blames him for being torn up inside about it. When Dwight learns that the man suspected of killing his parents has been let out of jail after taking a plea deal, he soon discovers a purpose in life – stone-cold revenge. Driven as if by a motor, he heads to Virginia and begins a bloody campaign of vengeance against those who have wronged him.
Dwight’s single-mindedness is reflected in Saulnier’s filmmaking. The editing (by Julia Bloch) is ruthless, cutting Blue Ruin down to its most basic and unblemished form, and the director’s cinematography also seems purposeful, lingering on images of devastated landscape both urban and natural. Blue Ruin is one of the most suspenseful films in years, and that’s entirely thanks to Saulnier and Bloch’s no-nonsense style of filmmaking. Nothing’s extraneous or frilly – it’s taut almost beyond belief. As Dwight pursues his target, Saulnier’s script is also refreshingly bare-bones, not beating around the bush about it. Interestingly, as Dwight takes his long-awaited revenge, Blue Ruin is just getting started. After the fact, he bumbles and trips over his own feet in confusion, realizing the folly of his crime. For once, we have a film that doesn’t glorify violence, instead centering on its brutality, finality and ultimate futility.
Dwight gets caught up in an unending cycle of violence, only understanding after taking down his target that bloodletting only leads to more bloodletting. Revenge thrillers are often beloved because they’re essentially wish fulfillment – a wronged protagonist picking up arms and getting his pound of flesh, often gorily and with great sadism. Blue Ruin, then, may be one of the few revenge thrillers I’ve seen that’s actively anti-revenge in its messages, and for that it’s a much better and more interesting entry in the subgenre than has emerged in years.
I also love Blue Ruin for somehow being both a throwback to noirish Westerns of decades prior and a strikingly current thriller – much is made of Dwight’s ability to easily get guns despite his mental instability and obviously murderous intentions, and Dwight’s ex-military friend Ben (a superb Devin Ratray) sums up the film’s brutally simple message when, after bloodily blowing a man’s jaw off (much to Dwight’s horror), he barks, “That’s what bullets do.” Arriving in the wake of Aurora and Newtown, Blue Ruin‘s subversion of the revenge thriller lands with startling ferocity.
Blair is superb in the lead role, bringing nuance and feeling to every whispered line and sagging step. I’ve never seen the actor in anything else, but after Blue Ruin, I’ll be seeking him out. It’s clear that a truly great bond has been forged between him and Saulnier, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do next. Blue Ruin, at a compact 90 minutes, is a tight and unrelenting ride, and it also feels like one hell of an opening act for a cinematic duo who have something to say – and know exactly how they want to say it.
The 1080p Blu-Ray transfer does its job well, though I did notice a lot of flatness with the image and some places where more detail would have been an improvement. That’s not a fault of the transfer so much as a result of Saulnier’s low-budget filmmaking style. I was often absorbed by the images on the screen, from Dwight’s hollowed-out shell of a Pontiac (the titular blue ruin, symbolic of Dwight’s threadbare psyche and perhaps also the troubled, lawless America in which the film takes place) to the sudden, vivid blood sprays that appear during the film’s fearlessly nasty action sequences, and the detail is generally good throughout.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track is also satisfactory, with music being a particularly strong suit, engrossing and crisp. Dialogue, too, is well-delivered and never wants for more clarity. The sound effects, like bullets firing and bones crunching, are rightly jarring, while more subtle effects like ocean waves are also neatly implemented. No issues whatsoever with this audio track (I’m a particular fan of Little Willie John’s song “No Regrets”).
The special features on the Blue Ruin Blu-Ray include:
- Audio Commentary with Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair
- No Regrets: The Making of Blue Ruin (18:56)
- Deleted Scenes
- Extended Opening (2:33)
- Limo Crash (2:25)
- Camera Test (3:52)
It’s not a particularly expansive set of extras, but there are still some solid finds here. The audio commentary is enjoyable, delivering even-handed discussion about the challenges and benefits of shooting on a low budget, the shooting locations they chose to go with for Blue Ruin, the music incorporated into the film, the different kinds and strengths of performances by the cast and practically every other subject you can think of. This is a great listen for Blue Ruin viewers interested in gaining insight into all of the hard work that went into such a refined and fully formed project.
The “No Regrets” featurette is a well-made and insightful extra that takes a look at how the project came together in terms of getting the budget together, deciding on a particular tone, getting it onto the festival circuit and much more. It steps back from the actual film to examine its successful run and reception, an unusual choice for a home release featurette.
The deleted scenes are brief and not especially worth your time but, on the other hand, everything that Saulnier did for Blue Ruin was superb, so you might be inclined just to check them out for a tiny bit more exposure to the film’s gripping tone.
Finally, the camera test was sort of like a sales pitch for Blue Ruin. Shot by Saulnier during a location scout in Delaware and Virginia, it captures the film’s evocative but charged feel with silent work from Macon Blair and some terrific framing and lighting on Saulnier’s part. The song is “I Hope You Die” by Wye Oak, a terrifically eerie choice for Blue Ruin. Definitely check it out – it’s the best featurette out of the bunch.
The Blu-Ray package for Blue Ruin is a satisfying, if not overly impressive one, so nothing about it should prevent you from picking up a copy of this excellent thriller as soon as humanly possible. Nerve-shreddingly tense, grim in an oddly delightful way and winningly intelligent about the futility of violence in modern-day America, it’s a thriller with a lot on its mind and damn near perfect execution. Don’t miss it.
Uncommonly smart, quietly indelible and impressively assured, Blue Ruin brings the revenge thriller into the modern era even as it subverts its very premise, using evocative direction and a haunted leading man to reveal violence's horrific true face.