A quiet revelation at Cannes last year, Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (2013) is a stripped-back revenge thriller that cruises down the central reservation of the genre, veering wildly between tense thrills and a series of alluringly awkward acts of violence to achieve instantaneous cult veneration. Behind a haze of steam we observe a bearded man submerged in the bathtub of a quintessential American middle-class home. The serenity of this scene is soon dashed one the house’s rightful owners return and we’re transported to a life far removed from this idyllic image of suburban life. The man is Dwight (Macon Blair), a homeless outcast sleeping in an a rusted Pontiac and surviving on scraps salvaged from dumpsters.
Through a series of enthralling, dialogue-free scenes observing Dwight’s marginalised life, Blue Ruin fabricates an intriguingly halcyon atmosphere of ambiguity and mystery against a backdrop of America’s gaping wealth divide. It transpires that Dwight’s life of destitution is the result of deep-seated psychological trauma imposed by the murder of his parents – with the discovery that their murderer has been granted early release rudely switching on the lights behind Dwight’s listless eyes. We soon realise this life of poverty was self-imposed, initiated by Dwight in order to deprive himself of life’s little privileges so that when the time came for revenge he’d have nothing to lose. Throughout, Saulnier effectively fuses ambivalence and suspense with a healthy slice of empathy to create his unique tale of 21st century retribution.
A nefarious misadventure that’s technical prowess and heartbreaking lead performance belies its economical pedigree, Saulnier’s farcical tale is punctuated with irregular scenes of dark, bumbling humour whilst a wanton disregard for the bellicose testosterone of similar tales successfully constructs a tense and naturally opaque mood that broods with the clammy tension of an impending storm. Hitherto better known as a celebrated cinematographer, Saulnier’s crisp yet acutely restricting framing adds a sense of emotional incarceration to this taut southern fried thriller, with each morsel of Blue Ruin’s laconic script littered with gritty home truths and succinct metaphors for America’s crumbling society. Indeed, Dwight’s transformation from homeless hick to clean-shaven defender is a crystal clear comment on the castration of the American middle-classes and its gradual enslavement to material possessions.
Revenge is normally a dish best served cold, but here Saulnier thaws his tale of vengeance with the humid Virginia climate and the authentic disposition of his endearingly fallible protagonist. Dwight’s inability to rise to the challenge ahead of him renders him a compassionate and identifiable lead, a man angry and motivated yet lacking the sociopathic mentality to satisfy his appetite for revenge. One scene in particular epitomises the film’s contempt for heroism. After an arrow strikes Dwight, we witness him hobble into a pharmacy, collect the necessary supplies he requires and return to his trusted Pontiac to perform some on-the-hoof surgery, only to moments later see him stumbling into a nearby hospital and collapse. Dwight might not be the hero Blue Ruin’s audience need, but he’s certainly the one they deserve; a flawed, imperfect symbol of how even the most clean-cut pacifist can be drawn into a life of violence.