Blue Ruin and the brilliance of the low-budget thriller

Feature Ryan Lambie
8 May 2014 - 07:11

Thrillers may be increasingly rare in Hollywood, but the genre continues to thrive in the hands of great indie filmmakers, Ryan writes...

Fatal Attraction. Presumed Innocent. Basic Instinct. Double Jeopardy. They’re all Hollywood thrillers of the 80s and 90s, and were all, to a greater or lesser extent, sizeable box-office hits. It’s easy to forget, in the current era of superhero-led blockbusters, that the humble thriller was once a go-to genre for Hollywood - its mid-budget bread and butter which could reliably turn a profit in both theatres and on VHS (or later, DVD).

The past 20 years, however, have seen a sizeable shift in the way Hollywood makes and sells its films. There’s an increased need to hook the biggest possible audience in on a movie’s opening weekend, resulting in a greater emphasis on loud, flashy moments which can be packaged up and sold to viewers in trailers. This ‘go-big-or-go-home’ mentality has, in turn, led to bigger action scenes and city-wide destruction; as Damon Lindelof lamented last year, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world.”

Now, while we thoroughly appreciate an explosive superhero movie as much as the next geek, we do miss those thrillers that were once so common. Yes, movies are still being made in the genre, and sometimes do well, such as 2012‘s Jack Reacher, which made a healthy $200m or so worldwide. Yet thriller films which emphasise suspense, characterisation and atmosphere are becoming increasingly rare in mainstream American cinema.

Released early last year, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects was something of a 90s throwback. Like those thrillers mentioned at the start of this piece, it was very much a medium budget film ($30m isn’t a huge sum for a movie these days), was led by a handful of star names (among them Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones), and featured a taut, low-key script which was full of intrigue and drama rather than explosions or special effects. Sure, it was trashy, but it had the quality of a good pulp page-turner you might buy from an airport. Side Effects doubled its budget at the box office, and probably would have made even more money had it been marketed better. So why isn’t Hollywood making more thrillers like this? 

There are probably several reasons why. First, marketing is expensive, and studios are increasingly saving their pennies to sell their biggest, most lucrative movies. Second, thrillers are relatively cheap to make, but truly great thrillers are difficult to write. And third, the American thriller has largely migrated to television - for recent examples, see True Detective or the TV adaptation of the Coen brothers’ Fargo.

But while the US mainstream seems to be increasingly turning its back on the thriller, indie filmmakers are stepping in to fill the breach. Blue Ruin, which came out in UK cinemas last week, is an example of the kind of absorbing, impeccably-made and intelligent thriller which could have been made by a director like Jonathan Demme or David Fincher back in the 1990s.

About an ordinary man on a fumbling and misguided revenge mission in Virginia, Blue Ruin is superbly written and shot by Jeremy Saulnier, while Macon Blair turns in an unforgettably bruised, sad-eyed performance as cinema’s most unlikely avenging angel, Dwight. 

As Saulnier told us in a recent interview, he made Blue Ruin partly as a reaction to the typical American indie films doing the rounds at festivals. “I have a wife and a mortgage and kids, and yet my daily experience is more hectic and riveting than a lot of these American indie films!” Saulnier said. “They're about people moving apartments, or painting a wall. They were really mundane. I like escapism, I like thrills and chills.”

Saulnier lists the Coen brothers, Michael Mann and Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven as his inspirations, and it’s certainly possible to see hints of those in Blue Ruin. Yet Blue Ruin is far more than a homage or pastiche; the revenge scenario is a familiar one, yet the sense of vulnerability and realism in its central character - who’s anything but the kind of callous assassin we’re used to seeing in the genre - lends it a real freshness.

Blue Ruin is by no means the only indie thriller to have appeared in recent weeks, either. Late April saw the release of Locke, written and directed by Steven Knight. Tom Hardy stars as a mild-mannered everyman whose entire life begins to unravel during a motorway drive from Birmingham to London. Shot almost entirely in the utilitarian confines of the character’s car, Locke’s a dazzlingly lean and bold film, and like Blue Ruin, it’s anchored by a superb central performance. 

As Jeremy Saulnier points out, well-made thrillers are relatively uncommon in America these days, whether they come from major studios or from indie filmmakers. But the thriller remains a fertile ground for writers, actors and directors with skill and imagination, and has done for many years - directors as varied as Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan got their start in the genre.

And while thrillers aren’t as common a sight in cinemas as they once were, films like Blue Ruin and Locke remind us of the genre’s nail-biting potential.

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