Having now watched the accomplished revenge thriller Blue Ruin, it’s fascinating to visit the Kickstarter crowdfunding page that was set up by director Jeremy Saulnier and production company Filmscience to help finance the movie. Saulnier’s original target was to raise $35,000, a figure that was surpassed in August 2012, and those funds were required in addition to those already raised by the production team. ‘As for ourselves,’ the makers wrote on the fundraising page, ‘we’re going all-in. Maxing out credit cards, re-financing homes and cashing in retirement accounts.’
It’s great to see a collective gamble like this pay off so handsomely, and it’s another good news crowdfunding story. Saulnier’s film received good notices at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, which raised industry interest and helped secure wider distribution, and it finally hit cinemas around the world about a month ago. Despite a limited release it has made around $250,000 in the US and close to $500,000 in the UK, while word of mouth continues to spread. Presumably those involved have paid off their credit cards now.
The antihero of Blue Ruin is a drifter named Dwight (Macon Blair), a man who has spent several years living near a Delaware beach in his rusting Pontiac, scavenging for food out of rubbish bins and reading by torchlight. We first see him enjoying a bath in a nice home, but it doesn’t belong to him, and when the house owners arrive home he must up and leave abruptly. Normally dirty and disheveled, he cuts a tragic and lonely figure in a fascinating and near-silent opening 15 minutes, during which we learn that a man named Wade Cleland Jr (Sandy Barnett) murdered Dwight’s parents and has been released from prison early due to a technicality.
Dwight decides to take revenge into his own hands, but he is at best an amateur killer, and he does not fully consider the consequences of his actions. Wade Cleland, Jr has a large family, and though we do not learn all that much about them individually they are revealed as a tight-knit collective of criminals and weapons enthusiasts. We also learn that Dwight has a sister named Sam (Amy Hargreaves); she has apparently had greater success in moving on with her life after the murder of her parents, but her family is placed in danger when Dwight’s vendetta against the Clelands escalates. Very quickly Dwight realises that he is out of his depth, and despite enlisting the help of old friend Ben (Devin Ratray, making a name for himself after a similarly noticeable supporting role in Nebraska), his actions set in motion a violent and unpredictable chain of events that he is unable and unwilling to either stop or walk away from.
Blue Ruin’s plot is simple, but gripping. Much of the fascination comes from watching the events spiral out of control, and the response to these by the main character, a man largely unprepared for the Cleland’s reaction to his initial act of vengeance. It is no surprise, therefore, that Saulnier’s film has been compared to some of the darker works of the Coen Brothers, as this is a scenario that they have returned to often, and successfully; while not as expansive as No Country For Old Men or Fargo, Dwight shares the same increasing helplessness of the two male protagonists of those films, Llewelyn Moss and Jerry Lundegaard, and like that doomed pair his opportunities to walk away from the situation he finds himself in dwindle as time passes. Blue Ruin also has some of the dark, focused tone of Blood Simple, and the characters in both films share a general refusal to involve the police in their affairs. Then there’s the violence, infrequent but Coen-esque in its sudden brutality, repeatedly surprising you and almost comic in its absurdity. In that respect the movie also recalls David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence.
Dwight is driven by his need for revenge, having been failed by the traditional justice system. As a man who has clearly never killed or been involved in any heavy criminal activity before, he shows all the signs of nerves and adrenalin rushes you would expect of someone in his position, and Blair brilliantly conveys a range of emotions pre- and post-violence. The character is in every scene and is fascinating to watch, his quiet-spoken nature and (later) office worker appearance utterly at odds with his situation, right to the very end. Saulnier puts the viewer in Dwight’s shoes every step of the way, creating sympathy for the character when things go wrong and staying with him until the inevitable conclusion.
As a result of the concentration on Dwight, you could argue that the film has little time for its supporting characters, particularly the members of the Cleland family. Some appear briefly and are not seen or heard of again, while others only pop up right at the very end. There is a general impression of the family as a dangerous bunch of sociopaths, though, and one of the movie’s strengths – the unpredictability of the characters’ actions – is a result of Saulnier’s decision to keep the antagonists firmly in the background. The less we know about them, the better.
I’d like to have seen more of Sam and Ben, though, particularly as their relationships with Dwight are important and interesting, but slightly glossed over due to the brevity of their scenes. The re-appearance of the drifter / brother / friend in their lives is something both find surprising, but the characters are in a predicament where focusing on the recent past as opposed to the present is dangerous; in fairness their relationships with Dwight are explored as adequately as you could expect of a movie with a short-ish running time of 90 minutes, but I would have happily watched a further ten minutes with both characters, as their time on screen is enjoyable and reveals more about Dwight’s personality. (There is a positive aspect to all of this, though, and that is the fact that Blue Ruin feels tightly-focused and well-paced. Incidentally, the day before watching Blue Ruin I finished watching Breaking Bad. I think my expectations of characters that appear in dramas – particularly supporting characters – has changed somewhat as a result of the popularity of long-form TV shows. This shouldn’t be the case, and I’m actively trying to avoid it, but I’ve noticed a trend of increasing disappointment with regard to supporting characters in movies. In the days when a series on TV looked no further than the end of an hour-long episode, films by comparison seemed to be luxuriously expansive, containing richly-drawn characters that seemed far more credible than those populating the small screen. Shows like The Wire, where there are fifty -plus main characters appearing during the course of five seasons and more than 50 hours, are now far more exhaustive than films could ever hope to be, and though it would be premature to describe TV as the weightier format of the two, it can no longer be dismissed as the lighter alternative. Certainly in terms of drama, anyway.)
The title references Dwight’s beat-up car, but the movie is also given a blue-ish sheen in early scenes by Saulnier, who is also the movie’s cinematographer (and writer). The doubling up of jobs was a necessity due to the small budget, of course, but the benefits of the director’s increased control over the camera can be seen. ‘[I] really wanted to make sure that, because this story was so visual and relied so little upon dialogue, that me being director and DoP on set, there would be no translation loss and I could again be very intuitive and internal in my approach, and not have to explain things or delegate jobs to other people,’ Saulnier explained to Grolsch Filmworks last month. The results are excellent: Blue Ruin looks fantastic, better than a great many movies that have budgets in the millions, with each frame set up with care and imagination.
Saulnier – with the help of Blair, editor Julia Bloch and the rest of the cast and crew – has crafted an excellent suspense thriller, with a gripping story and a strong central performance; both director and star are ones to watch in the future. Blue Ruin is bloody, and at times shocking, but it has a mature approach to violence and benefits from a refusal to opt for easy, clear-cut answers in its exploration of justice and morality. While this is very much a genre piece, it does not appear to be burdened by the stereotypes and tropes of the revenge movies that pre-date it. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it original, but it is very, very good nonetheless. Thank goodness those who backed it got their wallets and credit cards out.
Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier
Written by: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves
Running Time: 90 minutes