by Philip Price
There is a stillness to Jeremy Saulnier's “Blue Ruin” that is inescapable and transfixing from its opening shots. There is a sense of calculation, of very precise intention in its tone and color palette that lure you in with their solemnity and then blow your expectations out of the water with its blunt violence. It is a technique that is tough to put ones finger on in terms of how exactly we become so intrigued in a story we know very little about. We meet Dwight (Macon Blair) as he sits bathing in a tub, but stumbles out and through a window when he hears noise from outside. We pick up on clues that are dropped in each moment and we begin to piece together who this man is and how he came to be at this point in his life. His appearance suggests a large amount of mystery and misery. He is brought into the police station by a sweet-natured female officer who informs him of news that likely floods his minds with endless possibilities and scenarios, but all we hear are the words of the officer assuring Dwight that he will be fine. They are words he doesn't hear and that he doesn't intend to try and uphold. From the outset of this vague premise we follow Dwight as he more or less sets out on a revenge-fueled mission that can only end a number of ways, none of which are particularly promising for our protagonist. What I enjoyed about “Blue Ruin” though is not that it both elicits thought and tension as well as it does pure entertainment (though these aren't bad reasons to enjoy it at all), but that it gains these qualities and moves with its ever-increasing momentum because of the directorial choices being made. Saulnier makes very determined decisions in his shot selection and environments to both imbue his film with a strong sense of style and also tell a rather simple and clichéd story in a way that feels fresh.
That artists can actually put new twists on old ideas is something of a revelation considering the amount of films the mainstream receives these days that simply feel like recycled concoctions of things we've seen done to better effect before. That isn't to dismiss all mainstream studio films, but it certainly makes it easier to appreciate well thought-out, involving and character-centric films like “Blue Ruin.” It is easy to fling that kind of generic praise at a film without giving any reason as why you might gain that feeling from its proceedings, but with this picture it is rather easy to convey what makes the experience all the more impressive. First is the fact that Saulnier is more a cinematographer than a director (he only has one prior feature to his name) and that shines through in the composition of each shot with its pale colors and smooth movements. The way in which the eye of the camera guides itself through certain scenes creating a rhythm in line with the tone of the characters it is documenting is not an easy task to pull off; in fact it is a trait that has to appear seamless and with ease, but must be thought about to an extensive degree in order to make it appear that way. “Blue Ruin” feels so seamless and quiet throughout the entirety of its running time though that I can only imagine how well Saulnier informed his crew and his actors of what he wanted and how best to elicit these moods and themes.
It is the small things that really contribute though and in large amounts here it is the quiet that we notice. Before the first real (albeit short) conversation is had in the film about 20 minutes in I didn't even realize we'd yet to hear Dwight's voice. I was so wrapped up in the intrigue of who this man was and what his story might be that I failed to notice the film consisted of only slight or white noise up until that point. The dialogue never becomes a central tool to the storytelling, but it comes and goes as it feels naturally appropriate. For a good portion of the running time Dwight is by himself or if he is forced to communicate does so mainly with his facial expressions. To this point, much credit is due to Blair who I haven't seen in anything prior, but does an incredible job of carrying this slow-burning, reflexive thriller of a character study on his shoulders. As we don't hear his voice very often we become more accustomed with his mannerisms and movements, more specifically those of his telling eyes. There are scenes where we come to understand the internal conflict circling in the pit of Dwight's stomach and this is all done through the performance of Blair. He is somehow able to have both an intense yet sobering presence that doesn't register him as any kind of immediate threat, yet his eyes highlight the anger boiling below the surface that could erupt at any time. While there are other characters in the film, most notably those of the Cleland family and Devin Ratray who gets one of the film’s shining moments of gore, but this is really all Blair's film and he gives a performance worthy of attention he will likely never get.
When it comes to writing about film these days it is very easy to become cynical fairly quickly given the repetitive nature of the content and storytelling techniques recycled again and again in our tentpoles, not to mention the over-reliance on brand recognition and comic book films. What makes “Blue Ruin” stand out in my mind is its ability to seemingly break down those walls of jaded movie-goers as it delivers the goods of a suspenseful and thrilling action film while delving into the philosophical ponderings of its situation through the performance of its lead character all while doing so on a beautiful canvas captured by a cinematographer with an eye to watch who just so happens to be the writer and director resulting in a well-rounded product of singular vision. Taking tropes and archetypes we've seen countless times before and transforming them into a biting picture that oozes more gravitas than you might ever imagine from a pulpy piece such as this leaves the film on your memory and will force you to re-visit it, what I don't doubt will be, many times in the future.