The spectrum of critical commentary for Blue Ruin runs from demands of gun control in America to predictions of a renaissance in western revenge narratives. Jeremy Saulnier shows his adeptness for intertextual and social critique, assuming the roles of writer, photographer and director. But his interest in genre work—and the curiosity of Blue Ruin’s geographic ambiguity—is ultimately undermined by a caution to engage with contemporary politics. The locations are the road side bars, suburbs and woods of Maryland and Virginia. Saulnier aligns most establishing shots with the perspective of Dwight—a local vagrant who eats trash, sleeps in his car, and wears the beard of a man afraid to show his face—yet Dwight’s identity and his motivations remain oddly distant. Dwight is forced from his life of solitude with the news that the man who allegedly murdered his parents has been released from prison. He has only uttered a handful of lines by the time he has committed to murdering the ex-convict, Kris Cleland. As it happens, the Clelands are a large family of idiots with deep roots in the south.
The first third of Blue Ruin unfolds mostly without dialogue—when Dwight speaks he can barely form coherent sentences. Macon Blair plays Dwight as a timid stranger, suspicious of everybody. His gait suggests he hasn’t had much exercise. Is Dwight a hardcore wild man? He’s competent enough to catch a fish, but also risks bubble baths in suburban homes. Murder is on Dwight’s mind, but violence is a foreign concept. Saulnier’s camerawork—as Dwight positions himself with a knife in the bathroom of a bar, for instance–shows skill in suspense, but the story lacks conviction to the act of killing, often trading it in exchange for distracting humor. Humor and violence go hand in hand, but Saulnier seems hesitant to commit to reflections on Dwight’s actions. Rather than elevate the film toward an art house aesthetic, the two tones inconvenience each other. During an intimate family conversation, Dwight’s confession to murder is interrupted by an arbitrary and distracting joke about ketchup.
It’s disappointing that after the visceral sloppiness of Dwight’s first lengthy murder, Saulnier resorts to impersonal gunfights for the rest of the film. Aside one scene, copied in jest from No Country for Old Men, in which Dwight has to perform impromptu surgery to remove an arrow from his leg, Saulnier pairs violence with a shallow critique of gun culture. The Clelands possessive stock of guns is contrasted with Dwight’s high school buddy, a bonafide killer whose gun collection parodies The A-Team. The southern stereotypes are consistent with the homage to No Country, mixed with the family-driven brutality of The Last House on the Left. Technically, Blue Ruin moves toward a retro aesthetic—the color palette transitions from the neon lights of a carnival to the yellow hum of a lamp timer. On the other hand, Blue Ruin’s violence runs closer to pop culture heroics than the eclectic weaponry of the Coen brothers.
Underneath the responsibility for retribution is a story of men defending the virtues and flaws of their fathers. Without much contemplation, after the first kill, Dwight feels obliged to finish the whole family; a little boy wanting to do a man’s work. The illegible tattoos on Dwight’s chest and his role in a vague but shameful anecdote about a stripper make the film’s character better suited to the peculiarities of an indie road film. Dwight is neither a masculine enigma, nor the wrong man forced to make right. He has clearly grown up without parents, and clumsily assumes his own paternal role. I began to enjoy the slow development of Dwight’s ethics as an adult in the last act of the film, but by that time Saulnier had already set his sights on a conclusive shootout. For those who prefer a cat-and-mouse tale without the existential residue, Blue Ruin is a fun entry into Southern revenge in widescreen.