Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rags to Ruin: Blue Ruin

Macon Blair in Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin
I love it when indie films show up on Netflix, untethered by restrictive studio release structures and desperate for a wider audience. It often means that I can catch up on films I missed from earlier in the year – like the dark, tense, and oddly beautiful Blue Ruin.

A police cruiser pulls up alongside a dilapidated Pontiac, parked by the boardwalk. Our protagonist, Dwight (Macon Blair) – shaggy, bearded, and filthy – is sleeping inside after a night of scavenging trash bins for food. We think, oh no, the jig is up, but the cop’s not here to arrest him or tell him to get lost. She speaks softly to him, calling him by name, telling him to come with her to the station so she can deliver a hammer blow to what’s left of his life: the man who murdered his parents has been freed from prison. This is the setup of Blue Ruin, directed and written by independent filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, and it’s both the beginning and the end for poor Dwight.

The weakness of Blue Ruin is also its strength. Revenge stories are so unbelievably overplayed that their conceits hardly compel anymore, but Saulnier deconstructs the genre in tiny, understated ways – like how the victims are Dwight’s parents, instead of the usual “wife and daughter” targets for automatic audience sympathy, and especially in the way Dwight is painted as an incompetent but highly-motivated killer. He has the passion for revenge, but not the ex-military training that so many of the Liam Neeson types have. And it’s doubly impossible to see what's coming because we don’t know what Dwight will do next, but neither does he. He knows what he wants – just not the best ways to go about it.

Macon Blair plays Dwight with barefaced earnestness. This is a broken man, unable to control his emotions, as unaccustomed to violence as he is to normal human interaction (as he admits when reconnecting with his estranged sister Sam, “I’m not used to talking so much.”). The way Blair hunches and blinks wetly with his wide, expressive eyes, he gives Dwight an air of listless idiocy – as though he’d been left in an arrested adolescence after the trauma of his past and the depths to which he sank as a result. Dwight looks filthy most of the time, but he positively radiates shame. Except when it’s replaced by panic, or desperate rage. Sam lashes out at him, doubtless unable to hold back years of suppressed worry and unresolved sorrow, saying, “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not. You’re weak.” She doesn’t know how wrong she is – apparently she hasn’t seen many films like this one, in which strength can surface in unpredictable ways, from the people you least expect.

Macon Blair in Blue Ruin

Suspense is almost at a surplus for most of the film’s runtime, with short breaks in the tension that more often than not manifest as flashes of quick and brutal violence. Dwight is a poor hitman, but he doesn’t lack for motivation, and he’s a quick study. He does, however – even though he doesn’t realize it at first, sleeping in a rust-eaten car – have a good deal to lose. I could have done without the shoehorned revelations that show up in the third act, which I won’t spoil here, and don’t add to the film in any significant way. I would have preferred that the film end in the same barren, nihilistic tone in which it began.

Blue Ruin uses its low budget to maximum effect. Far from its cheap-looking indie ilk, it’s actually one of the most well-shot films of the year. Saulnier and art director Brian Rzepka play with colour and lighting to create images of indelible poignancy – such as a crossbow bolt stuck into a suburban lawn, or a man digging through garbage amid the glitter of a carnival fair. It’s a fair bet that the film would look excellent in black and white. The sound design is carefully done too, mixing the sombre, minimalist score with diagetic sound that creates a strong sense of place. These are strong indicators of a talented director and crew, who manage to shrug off the challenges associated with lighting and sound that often cripple films with comparable budgets.

Blue Ruin is a film of painstaking craft and modest ambition, content to paint a bright and suspenseful portrait of desperation and loss without relying on star power or an inflated budget. It glows with the same smudged neon aesthetic as Drive or Her, but with none of the attached pretension or fashionability. It’s pared-down and simple, clean and efficient and quiet. It’s like Hobo With A Shotgun as directed by early-career Ridley Scott, and it’s one of the most visually-arresting and suspenseful films of the year.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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