“Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.” —Paul Gauguin
Everyone has revenge fantasies. From the most benign version where you come up with the perfect quip too late, to wishing for a terrible reckoning on others who have wronged you. They are products of that lizard brain impulse that states, “they hurt me, so I hurt them” without ever considering the consequences. But how many of us can actually act upon these impulses? How many could disregard societal rules and pleasantries of modern life to deliver vengeance? Worse yet, what if you were cursed with a righteous cause — an unjust situation that most would say calls for action — how would you respond to that pressure? Could you still go through with it? Blue Ruin is a darkly comic and tense film that finds a man on that path of revenge, at once unaware or uninterested in the consequences of his actions while doubting his own next steps.
Macon Blair plays Dwight, a man who has been wallowing in his loss, living in the shadow of his parents’ death and in the backseat of their old Pontiac Bonneville, surviving off his grief and the scraps he finds in the trashcans of an amusement park. When Dwight learns that the man convicted of killing his parents, Wade Cleland, is getting out of prison early, he returns to his hometown intent on killing this man. The moment he starts that Pontiac up and drives it off the beach, he begins a sequence of escalation and retaliation that he couldn’t possibly foresee.
In only his second film, writer, director, and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier transforms what sounds like a standard revenge thriller into a brilliant and affecting character study. Blue Ruin plays out like an early Bonnie “Prince” Billy album in film form, with moments of touching humanity, clever comedy, brutal violence, and surprising tension. Blair, with his wide eyes and mouth agape, delivers a great performance as Dwight, a man committed to the act but not necessarily invested in the world he is creating with his actions. Dwight reveals a clumsy ineptitude at some points, like when he attempts to treat wounds he’s sustained in battle, but also proves himself quite resourceful and viciously efficient in other moments. He’s a well thought out character that rarely shows up in revenge films, a person that knows what he wants but isn’t necessarily suited to achieving it, and his vulnerability is instantly relatable.
Despite being a film centered on reckonings, Blue Ruin is really more about those moments before and after such violent incidents. It’s the tension of waiting to see what will happen next, of realizing that there’s no good way this can end and will only continue to escalate, as people rarely accept “eye for an eye” as an even exchange. Saulnier doesn’t pull any punches in the portrayal of these gruesomely brutal acts, but the more moving moments involve examining how Dwight fares in this rapidly darkening atmosphere.
Also, the film just looks gorgeous. Stunning landscapes alternate with brilliant camera placements that bring viewers into the panicked world that is closing in on Dwight. In one of those most memorable and beautiful shots, Dwight dives into the ocean as he embarks on his journey of revenge, and he’s shown as a minuscule figure struggling against the massive expanse as the sun sets in the background — foreshadowing how he will unwittingly finds himself caught up in an ever expanding world.
We all have revenge fantasies, but we are also fallible people who have our own share of screw-ups. Watching Dwight fumbling to figure out how to get a gun, or awkwardly interacting with his estranged sister, we see ourselves not in a revenge fantasy but in the ugly (and darkly entertaining) reality of vengeance. Blue Ruin is not a slick world where you have precision timing to efficiently take out the bad guys, but instead a harsh place where there are no real heroes or villains and no satisfaction gained from our terrible deeds. Saulnier has crafted an indelible and lasting film, one that exists in almost direct opposition to a genre of movies we’ve all come to love. It’s a unique, entertaining, and stirring film that looks squarely at our impulses for revenge and reveals them as powerful but hollow; promising that our lives may not always be entwined, but our destruction certainly is.