The season’s most buzzed-about indie movie, Blue Ruin, is a hauntingly well-made version of the same old vigilante-revenge saga. What’s novel is the mood—which is, as the title suggests, bluer than blue—as well as the avenger, Dwight (Macon Blair), who looks like Zach Galifianakis on tranquilizers. We meet Dwight as a bearded nomad, sleeping in a bullet-pocked car, eating out of garbage cans, staring at the sea under the boardwalk of a family-friendly beach town, soaking in solitude. In carefully parceled-out bits of exposition, we learn that a man convicted of killing Dwight’s parents will shortly be released from prison. Dwight smashes the window of a car and steals a gun (it’s the South) and then succeeds in breaking everything but the safety lock. He’s a bumbler, way out of his element, but robotically determined to finish what the legal system wouldn’t. And we wish him success, because we’re moviegoers in search of a payoff, of deliverance through violence.
The writer-director, Jeremy Saulnier, captures Dwight’s state of mind with beautiful economy—he’s a superb storyteller. Blood is spilled early, but a terrible machine has been set in motion. And has Dwight been stalking the wrong man? Just when we tire of his inarticulacy, Saulnier introduces an old friend of Dwight’s, Ben (Devin Ratray), a stocky custodian with an impressive arsenal. It’s stirring to see all of Ben’s weapons, which could do some serious damage. We think, Yummy. With every tense frame we move closer to the inevitable bloodbath—and to Dwight’s all-but-certain immolation.
On its own terms, Blue Ruin is very satisfying, but it’s important to dwell on those terms. Aside from “Go for it!,” the most pervasive motif in American film (and TV) is “I will have my revenge!” Everybody dreams of retribution, the bad guys and the good guys, the right and the left, from the heroic Klan of The Birth of a Nation to the anti-heroic African-American outcast vet, John Allen Muhammad, of another arty blue movie, Blue Caprice—a rare portrait of the natural drive for justice perverted.
It’s an essential theme—and yet it cheapens much of what it touches. In Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan made us increasingly ambivalent about his protagonist—until he introduced a neo-Nazi gang so unswervingly, unambiguously evil that our mixed emotions vanished in a righteous hail of bullets. The white-trash alcoholic scum of David Gordon Green’s Joe are just begging to be blown away by the hapless hero, whose mission in life is all at once clear. In Blue Ruin, the object of Dwight’s vengeance is a murderous racist white-trash family called the Clelands, whose rural homestead has guns in every nook. We know that Dwight—with his sad, sad eyes—will not be liberated by killing. Most likely, as in Hamlet or the Jacobean The Revenger’s Tragedy, it will be his (blue) ruin. And yet there isn’t a second when we don’t think the people in question would be better off dead and that a measure of order will be restored by their killing.
I expect more than low genre crap from a filmmaker as obviously sophisticated as Saulnier—a suggestion that, in a world teeming with would-be avengers, the social order cracks when every fool with a gun thinks he has been injured and his cause is just. Blue Ruin is more artful and evocative than any recent revenge picture, but it’s still drivel.
One more thing: The Cleland matriarch—whose actions set this story in motion—is played by Eve Plumb, once our beloved Jan Brady. So Plumb has gone from an impossibly wholesome family to an impossibly psychotic one. Are the Clelands our new national mascots?
*This article appeared in the April 21, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.