Jeremy Saulnier's debut feature Murder Party made an impression on me when I saw it a few years ago. I've still only seen it once, but I remember it as an oddball little indie horror flick with a sharp script, interesting characters and a mischievous anarchic streak. It's exactly the kind of rough around the edges, no-budget first effort that makes you sit up and take notice of a new director as being one to watch.
Cut to seven years later and Saulnier's sophomore feature Blue Ruin. The leap in maturity and quality between the two movies is staggering. It's not just a case of an increase in production values due to a bigger budget, it's obvious that Saulnier has grown as a filmmaker in leaps and bounds. Honestly it feels like there should be a whole filmography dividing these two films (and in a way there is, as he served as DOP on no less than seven features in the interim).
Blue Ruin is my latest foray into a sub-genre that I love, albeit one that I don't really have a name for. Southern thrillers? It's a sub-genre that I can trace back to the Coen's Blood Simple, although I'm sure that movie has its antecedents that I'm not aware of. This year has been a notable one for movies in this vein with Jim Mickle's excellent Cold in July (the first of Mickle's movies that I've really connected with) and David Gordon Green's masterpiece Joe (seriously if you haven't seen Joe, drop what you're doing, and go watch it NOW). Both of those films deserve their own write-ups and I hope to get to that at some point.
The way that Blue Ruin's story unfolds in the first act relies heavily on visual storytelling to introduce you to its central character, Dwight. When we first meet him he's a homeless loner living out of his car, and it takes a while to understand how and why he arrived at this low point. One thing is obvious - his life has stalled, and he seems to be living in a kind of self imposed limbo. Then, out of the blue, something happens that wakes him out of this stupor and gives him purpose again. Something that propels him forward with such powerful determination that he seems unable to stop his forward momentum, even as things begin to spin out of control.
Honestly, that's as far as I want to go with a synopsis, because one of this film's pleasures is in the way that the story is gradually revealed. It's no spoiler to say that Blue Ruin is a revenge flick, as that's touted pretty heavily in the film's marketing, but one of the things that makes it stand out in the genre is that Dwight is no archetypal revenge protagonist/antihero. There's no macho posturing, no ninja-level weapons and martial arts skills, no quipping swagger to this character. This man is damaged, unconfident, introverted and constantly terrified. As such, you can't help but fall in love with and root for the character, especially given the terrible adversity he faces in the course of the story.
Right across the board there's so much to love in Blue Ruin. The actors are all excellent, feeding off of Saulnier's killer script, the standout being Macon Blair whose understated performance as Dwight brings so much to a character who is a man of few words. The film is beautifully shot in rural locations throughout Virginia and just drips with backwoods atmosphere. And finally, the sometimes languid pacing is often punctuated by some really fist-pumping violence, a couple of times resulting in some perfectly executed gore that, in the service of such a genuinely emotional story, has a powerful impact. Highly recommended.