“I know this is personal. That’s how you’ll fail. No speeches, no talking. You point the gun. You shoot the gun.”
A line of dialogue that perfectly suited for a vengeance tale belongs in a better film than Blue Ruin. It’s strange to see so many comparing this new film to the often incomparable work of Joel and Ethan Coen; in this case, that of their debut Blood Simple. The similarities are few and far throughout, as Blue Ruin begins as an often-quiet, carefully presented, tale of vengeance, and later slips into a film that’s arguably as hapless as its main character.
In its first act, Jeremy Saulnier doesn’t offer a moment of pause to explain away the events unfolding. One watches a homeless man discover that a man is about to be released from prison, then prepare himself to potentially kill said man, but the reason comes after the kill. ”I’m not used to talking this much,” Dwight (Macon Blair) mumbles to his sister. He’s hesitant to do practically everything, even grabbing a cup at lunch, and when interacting with others, there’s a timidity to him that does wonders for those watching who want to sympathize with him. Regardless of him being a character that murders someone in cold blood mere minutes into the film, without any hint of why he did so, Dwight’s passive nature makes him strangely easy to root for. And that kind of selling of a character without an ounce of real explanation is an impressive feat for any filmmaker.
That passivity is exactly what makes the first forty minutes or so of Blue Ruin so damn good; the palpable tension at the thought of this man we don’t know being shot to death by the family of the man he killed. Every fuck-up, every landed hit, and every loaded means of escape works because of us not knowing anything about Dwight. But for someone with seemingly so much knowledge on how to survive on nothing at all, his character is quickly thrown into the role of hapless bum. That’s the main problem with Blue Ruin. The cinematography, the pacing, the score, they’re all still present in the film’s back half; the only real difference is that Dwight has apparently no idea how to survive on his own.
I could get behind this line of narrative progression if everything up to the moment where he heads off to find someone to provide him with a gun and teach him to shoot it didn’t tell me otherwise. Many a film have had characters who are total idiots slowly figure out ways to overcome that idiocy through the help of others. Hell, the complete ineptitude of characters to kill people is something the Coen brothers have in fact explored. But Dwight wasn’t all that inept when the film began, and there’s little reason for him to slide into that kind of role when it’s far more interesting watching him try these borderline Home Alonetactics in whatever home he’s currently residing (be it that of a friend or foe). He’s an amateur, sure, but he’s one with enough gumption to stay alive without the help of anyone but himself. That very characterization being betrayed by the end game is frustrating to witness.
There’s so much good in the set up of Blue Ruin, it’s a real wonder why the film doesn’t stick it through to the bitter end. At the very least, Saulnier’s great eye for setting up a shot shines through an awkwardly delivered vengeance narrative and, as someone who has not had the chance to see the seemingly entertaining Murder Party, makes one curious to see where he’ll go from here.
Blue Ruin is currently available on Netflix Instant (as of 9/13/14), Blu-ray, DVD, and for rental or purchase on Amazon Instant Video.
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier; written by Jeremy Saulnier; starring Macon Blair, Amy Hargreaves, and Devin Ratray; 90 minutes.