In retrospect it was a good idea to revisit Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin after taking in Spike Lee's Oldboy remake and the mediocre Out of the Furnace. All would fall into the "revenge thriller" category, but there's very little about Blue Ruin that feels familiar. Instead it takes our concept of the revenge movie and uses that as a springboard to something new and unbearably tense, where the "hero's" journey for vengeance isn't something to be cheered on, but is instead something to be feared.
The genius of Blue Ruin is that it doesn't simply grant us the "wish fulfillment" aspect inherent in every movie of this genre. That's the easy part; but what Saulnier does is thrust us headlong into the real-world repercussions such violence spawns. When we first meet Dwight (Macon Blair), he's a haggard shell of a man; skinny and ghostly, living out of his car like an aimless drifter. Something awful has clearly broken him; there's a sadness and terror behind his eyes that never goes away. While the locals obviously don't take kindly to him breaking into their homes to use the bath, the police are surprisingly forgiving; suggesting that whatever happened to Dwight was something truly heinous. We learn that his parents were murdered some time ago; setting him on the path of vagrancy he now seems mired in. But when he learns that the killer is about to be released from prison, all Dwight can think of is payback.
From there the film goes everywhere one least expects it to, staying light enough on its feet to shift gears on a spinning dime. Dwight's quest for retribution ends rather early on, but neither he nor we are allowed long to celebrate this Pyrrhic victory. Instead that's where the story kicks into another direction entirely as Dwight comes to realize that violence only begets more violence, and revenge is a most cyclical beast. He's not a hardened killer or a tactician in any sense of the word; Dwight is an ordinary guy, and a fairly soft one at that. And when he screws up the implications could be terrible, not just for him but for the few people he remains close to. The true power of Blue Ruin is its ability to find tension in the little things, not showy acts of violence. Saulnier creates an ominous atmosphere that permeates your bones; the cinematography is simple and stark; and he even finds clever ways to inject humor (mainly through Dwight's war vet buddy played by Devin Ratray) without going overboard into full-blown comedy, which it easily could have.
Although they say very different things about the nature of revenge and justice, Blue Ruin deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the original Oldboy. In his sophomore feature, Saulnier has created a fierce, powder keg of a thriller that marks him as a filmmaker with an extremely bright future.
*NOTE: This is a reprint of an earlier review from the Virginia Film Festival.*