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Blue Ruin

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/21/14 11:38:29

"Nothing ruins this."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 16: Say this for "Blue Ruin": It starts from a different place that many movies of its type, and that starting point means that even when it doesn't necessarily go in a unique direction, it still winds up in a new place. Going unexpected places in and of itself is certainly a good thing for a thriller like this, but it still needs some navigation, and writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is an impressively sure hand on the wheel.

That starting place is a beach in Maryland where Dwight (Macon Blair) lives out of his car, unless he can break into a house whose owners are on vacation. The police are familiar with him, but when one approaches him, it's not to arrest him for vagrancy, but to inform him that Carl Cleland (Brent Werzner), the man who killed his father, has been released from prison. This, apparently, is what Dwight needs to be shaken out of his slumber, but quests for vengeance seldom go unanswered, and the Clelands are a big, mean, redneck family while Dwight just has a sister (Amy Hargreaves) living a quiet middle class life.

Most people overlook homeless guys like the Dwight we meet at the beginning of the movie, maybe treating them with a little bit of wariness in case they suddenly turn violent and lash out randomly. Saulnier and actor Macon Blair do a fine job of simultaneously embracing and subverting that expectation, and in large part they do it without much more than Blair's eyes to work with, at least on the surface: With the bulk of Dwight's face hidden behind an unkempt beard, it's very easy to see the wild animal who has wandered into the human world in his eyes, afraid of everything around him but ready to activate the first part of the fight-or-flight reflex at a moment's notice. At other times, though, he projects the image of a boy who still hasn't been able to get over losing his father, and that helps to make him our homeless guy with just a loose connection to civilization. He's never going to be a true hero, but Blair makes it very easy for us to put ourselves in his shoes.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's positioned as being opposite monsters, either. Brent Werzner and Kevin Kolack, among others, make entertainingly nasty antagonists, with Eve Plumb and Stacy Rock not a whole lot more likable as the ladies of the family. On the other side, Amy Hargreaves really seems to nail the combination of relief and frustration at seeing her brother for the first time in years here, especially since that serves as the background for everything else that's going on. There's also a really nice supporting performance by Devin Ratray in there, playing a guy who might be comic relief or might be an ultra-grim scene-stealer in another movie, but here does a nice job of facilitating things without seeming too much like a plot device.

Don't necessarily get too attached to everyone, though; Saulnier recognizes early on that this fight is going to be nasty and doesn't spend a whole lot of time having Dwight and the Clelands circle each other. Much of the movie is a figurative knife fight - with portions where that becomes rather literal - bloody and violent, and tending to wear its participants out. The violence is nasty and often shocking, but never cheaply so: Saulnier is committed to the narrative of revenge as cyclic and destructive, and as much as the movie is thrilling, it never loses sight of how horrible all around what is going on is.

It's a darn good-looking movie, too. Saulnier photographs it himself, and he often favors daytime scenes washed out and a deep dark of night. He captures the clutter and messiness that often characterizes the rural south in movies, but there's also a sparseness to the picture that helps reduce whole world to Dwight and the Clelands. This isn't a horror movie, but Saulnier sets up a constant feeling of suspense and dread from the stark way he presents the movie visually even while doling information out in an effectively miserly fashion.

It's not terribly elaborate, but it doesn't have to be: Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair are at the tops of their games, and the movie is structured so that it doesn't need a whole lot more if they deliver. They do, and since everyone else is doing their thing well, "Blue Ruin" turns out to be a terrific little thriller.

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