Friday, May 16, 2014

BLUE RUIN Is a Lean, Mean Revenge Movie


- In the season of mega-blockbusters, it's always nice to mix things up a bit with a movie that feels wholly tangible, down n' dirty, and back-to-basics. That's what BLUE RUIN is - a low-budget indie flick that relies on good, old-fashioned tension-building to immerse you in its revenge-fueled drama. The mix of bleak, Southern-gothic atmospherics with darkly-funny moments of humanity calls to mind - as some have pointed out - early Coen Bros. works like Blood Simple. I don't think that Blue Ruin is quite at that level. Whereas the Coens delve deep into the subtextual underbelly of their story and characters, Blue Ruin is more a surface-level pleasure - a movie that thrives in the immediacy of the moment. But for what it is, this is an accomplished film. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has some serious chops, and I'm more than curious to see what he does next.

Blue Ruin deserves credit for letting up piece together the details of its story. It smartly doles out information via well-placed clues and slowly-revealed nuggets of back-story, rather than force-feed you everything in the clunky matter we see so often. To sum up, Blue Ruin tells the tale of Dwight (Macon Blair), a guy who's been seriously adrift since his parents were murdered. He's been living out of his car, living in quiet, depressing isolation, living the life of a vagrant. But Dwight is given a new sense of purpose when he finds out that the man who killed his parents has been released from prison. Dwight is possessed by a single-minded determination to find and kill this man. He sets out to do the deed, but - and here's the fascinating thing - that confrontation occurs in the first act of the film. Tracking down his parents' killer is only the start of a quickly-escalating cycle of violence that Dwight helps to reignite. Soon, Dwight finds himself caught in the middle of a brutal family feud that leads to more and more bloodshed.

While this is a very cinematic film, Dwight is no larger-than-life hero. As played by Macon Blair, Dwight is a wound-too-tight, slightly bumbling sad-sack who doesn't truly possess the cunning or cold-blooded nature to be a killer. Ironically, Dwight only seems more dweeby the more danger he finds himself in. As the movie opens, he looks the part of a guy with little to lose: he sports a tattered T-shirt, a bushy beard, and unkempt hair that highlights the dark bags beneath his eyes. But ironically, as his hunt for his parent's killer forces him to step back into the world, the more Dwight seems to look and feel like a guy who does have something to lose. He cuts his hair and shaves his beard, and adopts a mild-mannered uniform of khakis and button-down shirt. His journey also leads him to reconnect with his sister, who leads a comfortable middle class life and has a young daughter. And yet, Dwight remains intent on revenge above all else.

Blair's brimming-with-misguided-intensity performance really helps to anchor the film. From moment one, he seems like a guy in way over his head. Even his self-imposed life as a vagrant at the film's start seems more like a guy playing a part than a legitimate and necessary way of life. Some of the movie's dark humor comes from seeing Dwight get increasingly out-of-his-element. He seeks out his old high-school friend for help in learning to shoot a gun, and his friend - who keeps a giant gun cabinet and seems legitimately unhinged - immediately puts Dwight's relative meekness in perspective. The same is true of the thuggish family that Dwight seeks revenge on and inadvertently starts a war with. These guys are criminals and killers, and Dwight is just a guy.

It's a compelling premise and, certainly, the movie has a lot on its mind. At the same time, I'm not sure that the really meaty stuff here is ever truly explored in a meaningful or impactful way. That's where the Coen Bros. comparisons may hurt the film: BLUE RUIN is lean, mean, and suitably intense - but it's not nearly as clever or witty or thematically rich as the similar works of the Coens. I give the movie a lot of credit for its thematic ambitions, but ultimately, it felt just a little bit lightweight to me. It never had that one line of dialogue or that one huge moment that brought everything home and flat-out floored me. The ending sequence comes close (and features a career-redefining, uber-badass turn from Eve Plumb, aka Jan Brady from The Brady Bunch) ... but it still felt a little removed from what we'd seen previously in the film.

BLUE RUIN is one of those exciting films that, while not perfect, instantly signals the arrival of a new filmmaker that is worth keeping an eye on. Jeremy Saulnier is a director of note, and I have a feeling we'll be seeing some truly great movies from him down the line. With this film, he shows an understanding of how to set a mood and tone, how to work within a genre and subvert that genre, and how to crank up the intensity of his storytelling to nail-biting levels. As it stands, BLUE RUIN is not quite a great film, but it is one hell of a genre exercise.

My Grade: B+

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