Blue Ruin, the second feature film written, directed and shot by Jeremy Saulnier, goes about its business with such quiet, methodical confidence and creates such a stunningly oppressive atmosphere of dread that it’s hard to believe the movie is such a small, do-it-yourself affair. Actually, that’s not quite true: while the vision is all Saulnier’s, he was aided by an enthusiastically received Kickstarter campaign as well as the help of friends and family in getting his riveting modern noir to the screen.
Saulnier’s biggest asset, however, has to be the central performance of his childhood friend Macon Blair as Dwight Evans, whom we first meet as a homeless man living in a car (which actually belonged to Saulnier’s parents) near the beaches of Delaware and breaking into someone’s house just to take a bath. But below his grimy surface, Dwight is a much more tortured character: devastated by a violent act that happened to his family years ago, Dwight learns that the man responsible for that act is getting out of prison – and he embarks on a quest for revenge that will lead him deeper and deeper into a web of bloodshed and reprisal that could end up destroying him and the remaining family members he’s sworn to protect.
It’s perhaps best not to get much more specific about the plot, because part of the beauty of Blue Ruin is letting the layers of the story and Dwight’s history reveal themselves as you view the film. But the most refreshing aspect of Blue Ruin is that Dwight – a gentle, almost silent teddy bear of a man, with a perpetual look of wide-eyed resignation on his doughy face – is hardly what you would expect out of an assassin. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing, is not particularly adept with weapons, and does not have the steely demeanor of the experienced killer. He stumbles along, making it up as he goes, but his thirst for revenge seems to give him a core of inner strength that somehow gets him through his punishing, painful quest.
Blair projects all this with quiet, awkward desperation, his minimalist performance making Dwight unquestionably endearing despite the course of action he’s embarked on. You want him to succeed even though you know that means people are going to lose their lives and Dwight himself may lose not just that but his soul. The bleak mood is enhanced and buttressed by Saulnier’s vivid, deeply moody cinematography: the movie is called Blue Ruin not just for the dark emotional journey that Dwight must take, but for the stark visuals and key color scheme that reflect it.
Saulnier and Blair are also supported by a naturalistic cast who seem to have stepped right out of the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Look for Eve Plumb as the malevolent matriarch of the Cleland clan – the family that is the focus of Dwight’s plan – and marvel at how unrecognizable she is (in a good way) from her days as Jan on The Brady Bunch. Kevin Kolack is equally unnerving as another member of the Cleland family who has a crucial encounter with Dwight. Perhaps best of all is Devin Ratray (Home Alone) as Ben Gaffney, Dwight’s high school friend and Army vet who Dwight turns to for help in the film’s second half. Ben is a fascinating character in his own right, living alone in a secluded cabin yet willing to step up for his friend.
As the violence and intensity escalate, you begin to wonder if Dwight or anyone is going to get out of this scenario alive, and as the story spirals toward its inevitable climax, Saulnier’s compact, lean thriller takes on an air of deepening tragedy. Will the war between the Evans and Cleland families finally stop? Or will the hatred and vengeance continue to poison both sides until no one is left to get on with their lives? Blue Ruin leaves those questions unanswered, but we can only hope that by the end, the survivors have had enough. I, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of Saulnier’s crisp little genre exercise, and poor Dwight Evans is a creation who will stay with me for a long, long time.
Blue Ruin is out now in theaters and on VOD.