As “Blue Ruin” opens, the protagonist is in the bathtub. Except it isn’t his bathtub. He has snuck into someone else’s house, eaten their crackers, and is taking a bath when they pull into the driveway, and he has to make a quick exit out the window, and “borrow” some clothes from a neighbor’s clothesline. We wonder what kind of man this is, and what kind of movie this is.
But we soon find out he hasn’t always lived this way. Macon Blair plays Dwight, whose parents were killed in a gruesome double murder, which led, understandably, to his downward spiral. Now he finds out that the man responsible for their deaths has been released from jail. So he decides to take justice into his own hands. Dwight is homeless, scrounging in dumpsters for food. sleeping in a beat up Pontiac (The titular blue ruin, as far as I can tell, unless the title means that Dwight himself is blue, and ruined, which is kind of corny.)
But this isn’t really a revenge movie; it’s about how difficult it is, once that horse is out of the corral, to get it back. Dwight is comically incompetent when it comes to violence; you wonder if this guy has ever even played a violent video game, let alone held a gun for real. And he’s up against a family that keep submachine guns in their La-Z-Boys. He’s way out of his depth, and the only thing he’s got going for him is that he doesn’t care if he dies.
Because Dwight is so completely incompetent, “Blue Ruin” functions on one level as a warped mirror, refracting back to us the violence of action movies. It’s almost as if there’s a checklist of stock action scenes — the kill, the getaway, the stakeout, the interrogation, etc. — all turned on their head so they go terrible wrong, and yet, exactly right. The film highlights just how detail-oriented most action heroes are. Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson are nothing if not attentive to the little things. They are as meticulous as an ace wedding planner. No contingency is left to chance. Dwight, on the other hand, makes plans and abandons them like they’re used Kleenex, mostly because in the middle of the plan he realizes how stupid it is. There’s also a healthy dose of reality here, the kind usually missing from big action flicks – he manages to steal a pistol, but breaks it trying to get the trigger guard off. He almost gets caught and killed because he can’t get his flashlight to turn off. He doesn’t survive because he’s skilled, or determined, or prepared. He’s fairly resourceful, but mostly just lucky.
There’s not a lot of talking in “Blue Ruin,” which is one of its strengths. Director Jeremy Saulnier has spent a lot of time as the DP and cinematographer on other low-budget indie projects since his last feature, and it’s clear he has put that time to good use, learning a lot about visual language, imagery, and how to tell a story without words. This is also a great example of how to make a great-looking movie on a tight budget. Nothing about “Blue Ruin” feels cheap or corner-cutting. A lot of big-budget movies don’t look this good.
As much as anything, “Blue Ruin” is about the terrible cost of violence in our society. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Dwight gets his revenge; that happens pretty early in the movie. But it sets in motion other forces that he can’t control, and it’s pretty clear that (of course) it’s not nearly as satisfying as he hoped it would be. Is there any way to end this before everyone on both sides of the feud is dead? And if so, will Dwight be able to move on with his life, or will he go back to living in that rusted out Pontiac? The answers to both these questions are decidedly up in the air. That’s the kind of movie this is.