Blue Ruin is a "revenge thriller," which is a term that usually brings to mind one sort of movie... and it's often a pretty simplistic one. A person (usually a man) is wronged in some horribly tragic and violent fashion and then goes out to wreak all sorts of vengeance while the audience cheers along like Pavlov's dogs knew how to drool in front of food. I'm not making any personal judgments here; bloodlust, revenge, and a capacity for horrific violence are part of the human condition, so there's certainly nothing wrong with a simplistic story about a victim who eventually lashes back against his or her oppressors.
It's just a whole lot better when a group of filmmakers use the term "revenge thriller" as a vague idea, and then cook up a powerful and compelling movie that's actually "about" the nature of revenge. Getting an audience outraged is easy; placating them with lots of cathartic violence is even easier. But putting together something like Blue Ruin takes a lot of serious care, craftsmanship, and restraint. That last adjective is the most intriguing one, because while Blue Ruin takes a decidedly more cerebral and methodical approach to an oft-told tale, it also does it in a way that heightens suspense and hits you hard with -- restraint.
Blue Ruin opens with a homeless man who is living out of his car. We can tell from the outset that he's a sad and fractured man, but not a feral or maniacal one. Dwight (Macon Blair) seems lost, lonely, and almost tangibly heartbroken about something. We learn through some early and very clever exposition that Dwight's parents had been murdered several years earlier, but when he learns of their killer's parole from prison, our long-suffering anti-hero kicks into action: he's going to kill the repulsive Carl Cleland, because he deserves to be killed.
To say much more would rob the film of its simple and logical -- yet still entirely fascinating -- plot threads, but it's safe to say that Dwight manages to earn some hard-fought revenge, and that's when things go from bad to worse. And boy do things get really ugly for Dwight before Blue Ruin breezes through its dark story and closes with some smart, simple, and worthwhile points. Revenge often breeds more revenge; the only end to a cycle of violence is when there's only one person left alive; and once you've become a killer, nothing you do can ever change the fact that you're a killer.
This is a startlingly accomplished indie thriller from a writer/director who is only on his second feature. Jeremy Saulnier once directed the cheap, scrappy, amusing 2007 indie called Murder Party, and while that one stands up as goofy horror fun, Blue Ruin is an overwhelming improvement in every department of filmmaking you can think of. Macon Blair's lead performance is nothing short of stunning, truth be told, and it's a credit to the actor's skill that he gives the audience so much emotion with only a bare minimum of dialogue. (Mr. Saulnier's screenplay is nothing if not efficient.) The score is ominous, the cinematography is unflinchingly powerful, the editing style provides a simple story with a forward momentum that could teach the Hollywood boys a couple of things about keeping an audience captivated, and the supporting cast is simply great. (Devin Ratray, as Dwight's old and estranged school buddy, is an oasis of wit and warmth in an otherwise cold and frequently upsetting film.)
If you're looking for some simple "revenge thriller" payoffs, Blue Ruin has more than a handful of those to share -- but it also has a lot of insightful things to say about justice, vengeance, morality, responsibility, and loyalty. This is a quiet, confident, and surprisingly excellent little thriller, and it cements my theory that Jeremy Saulnier is now a filmmaking force to be reckoned with. If his sophomore effort is this strong, his third feature will really blow some doors down.