TIFF Review: 'Blue Ruin'

The first thing that bad movies forget about violence is that it has a memory. Violence is not, regardless of what the climactic sequence of nearly every action film ever made would have you believe, especially conducive to resolving a narrative. Violence has a residue, and – as Zack Snyder could attest in the wake of his latest atrocity – even its most cartoonish depictions are wise to remember that.

One of David Cronenberg’s late-career masterpieces perceptively observed that violence has a history, and Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” responds to and compliments that film by contending that violence always has a vivid and active present. Winner of the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes in May and sure to absolutely destroy Fantastic Fest next month, Saulnier’s followup to the comparatively amateurish “Murder Party” is a feral and staggeringly well-conceived revenge saga that extrapolates one vagrant’s long-simmering quest to avenge the death of his parents into a study of how violence (a word that could apparently use some nice synonyms) is transformative, an animating force unto itself capable of turning tools into weapons and men into killers.

Purposefully destabilizing at first, “Blue Ruin” begins by introducing us to Dwight (a brilliantly benign Macon Blair), a guy with pallid eyes and a bushy beard who lives in his car somewhere in the nondescript American south. Awoken one morning by a local police officer who seems sympathetic to his existence, Dwight is informed that someone very important to him has been released from prison. {Spoilers for the first 20 minutes of the film] Dwight promptly, if inelegantly, finds and murders the man, only to realize that the deceased’s extended family – a gaggle of hillbilly killers who reveal the film’s heavy genre influence – will naturally target his own. As Dwight hurriedly renovates his sister’s house into a one-man Helm’s Deep, “Blue Ruin” appears to be resolving itself as a hair-rising riff on “Home Alone” (and the guy who played Buzz even shows up with a giant sniper rifle), but Saulnier has far more ambitious intentions, and discovering the film’s surprising trajectory is among its greatest pleasures.

With “Blue Ruin”, Saulnier is clearly attempting to imbue an ostensibly familiar genre experience with decidedly art house craft, and his enormous success at doing just that isn’t only rooted in his deviously ominous compositions but also the masterful precision with which his editing elevates a number of deceptively simple sequences into hair-raising displays of suspense (a home invasion early in the film has the plainspoken grace of Hitchcock’s British thrillers).

Of course, perhaps Saulnier’s greatest asset is his lead actor – Macon Blair was faced with the unenviable task of making Dwight at once both childlike and savagely capable, a feat made all the more demanding by how the narrative requires him to resist caricature at every turn. While Saulnier is happy to indulge in the pulpier side of things (perhaps even a tad too much at the very end), Dwight’s adventure only works if his flexible morals and slippery sense of purpose remain relatable so that viewers can be allowed to appreciate the character’s struggle with his dissolution into violence. Blair, who makes a memorable bid to become the Joe Lo Truglio of the genre world, is more than up to the challenge, combining wide-eyed deadliness with the disarming lucidity of his conviction to create a memorable antihero worthy of Saulnier’s exquisitely crisp cinematography (continuing the recent trend of polymath filmmakers, the director shot the movie himself).

The source of the title is never made explicitly clear (a reference to the beat up car at the heart of the movie? A nod to my favorite hair dye from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?”), but opportunities for “ruin” are made available to Dwight at every turn. A weapon is defined by its use. A gun is just a prop until its fired. It’s extremely compelling and morbidly hilarious to watch Dwight try and self-actualize in the middle of his life’s most dangerous crisis, but the takeaway from this, one of the year’s best American indies by a damn sight, is that it ultimately doesn’t matter if guns kill people or if people kill people. Because whatever the correct maxim might be, somebody’s dead, and their end is just another new beginning.

SCORE: 8.6 / 10

Movie & TV Awards 2018