Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier (Murder Party), Blue Ruin begins with the quiet life of a solitary man (Macon Blair) — homeless, jobless, kept even barely afloat by dumpster diving, petty crime and sleeping rough by the Eastern shore in an old, faded Bonneville so rusted-out and ravaged by time you can almost – almost – not see the bullet holes in it. Police officer Eddy (Sidné Anderson) taps on his window to wake him up one morning, taking him down to the station house, where the officer says to him that she simply wanted to make sure he heard some bad news from her before he heard it from anyone else: “They let him out.” And so we learn that Blair’s character – Dwight, although we don’t hear him speak for, perhaps, the first 20 minutes of the film – has a reason for his outcast state; his parents were killed 20 years ago, by Lil’ Wade Cleland, the him the officer explains they just let out. Dwight, with only eye-for-an-eye ‘principle’ to guide him, sets out to do what must be done …
The saying says that if you set out on a journey of revenge, best dig two graves; Dwight has to dig far more graves than that, and at first he doesn’t even have a shovel. Dwight isn’t a killer, but years on the fringes of society – invisible, poor, scraggly-bearded and silent-eyed – have taught him the kind of cunning that can be turned to murder and the sort of cowardice that can be used for self-preservation. And when he realizes that his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) – who, despite the murder that destroyed their family, has kept things together for her two kids – might be the object of blowback from the Clellands, he has to keep on his course until they’re safe or he’s dead. Or perhaps both.
Gorgeously shot by Saulnier himself, Blue Ruin contains the cool, green-and-dark-and-blue look of trees and rivers and shores, but also the crimson red of blood and the bleak whiteness of exposed bone. There’s silence in much of the film, whether in moments of suspense or moments of quieter interaction, and it’s a terrific example of a film where silence is as important as speech. While there isn’t much dialogue, the dialogue the film has is terrific – everything from Dwight’s broken-voiced admission to his sister that “This is the most I’ve … spoken … in a while …” to the advice of an old friend Ben (Devin Ratray) offered as he gives Dwight a gun: “This is personal for you, I know: That’s why you’ll fail. No speeches. Just do it.”
The other thing worthy of note in Blue Ruin is how brutal – and real – its violence is. There are scenes here that evoke Hitchcock’s famous observation that most people have no idea what hard work it is to kill a man – long, ugly struggles that end in a millisecond that divides life from death. Dwight isn’t some Eastwood or Bronson-esque vigilante with a cool brain and deadly skills; he’s a broken man, capable of keeping things together when he must. Blair’s performance is a thing of wonder – quiet and conflicted, driven and haunted. Dwight learns things he didn’t know on his quest – not about himself, but about his family, and about the Clellands – and his ultimate decision of where and why to stop is based on hard-won knowledge and the kind of brutal grace that only a killer can come to. The film’s journey among the fields and forests of Virginia never treads too heavily into the direction of Malick or Faulkner, and it doesn’t lean too much on Dwight’s ultimate realizations about his quest, either. With its strong and singular sense of itself adding realness – and real art – to what could have been another revenge thriller, Blue Ruin stands apart.