Friday, April 25, 2014

Blue Ruin

Grade: 60/B-

Blue Ruin is an uncommonly well-made thriller, which makes its devolution into familiar territory all the more disappointing. The film was directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the cinematographer on last year’s well-liked I Used to Be Darker, and he demonstrates a natural gift for composition, rhythm and sound in the film’s suspense sequences. His notions of what makes for compelling drama are considerably less assured.

The film stars Macon Blair as Dwight, a soft-spoken man who lives out of his car and picks through dumpsters for food. He’s introduced taking a bath in a stranger’s home, and when the police knock on the door, he assumes he’s in trouble.  When they finally do get ahold of him, they inform him that man named Will Cleland is being released from prison. Visibly shaken, Dwight returns to his home state of Virginia to enact revenge for a past wrong, and his actions have consequences that will endanger his estranged family.

The first half-hour of Blue Ruin is remarkably tense stuff precisely because Dwight’s motives and thought-process are unclear. As played by Blair, he’s a nervous, antisocial man who’s clearly haunted by something, but it isn’t immediately apparent what his trauma is. Saulnier follows Dwight as he struggles to find a gun and stalks Cleland after he’s released from prison, focusing on action over dialogue to extraordinary effect.

The film reaches its high point early on in a breathless sequence where Dwight, hides in a restroom, waits for Cleland to enter, and has to make an frantic escape when he’s discovered (for the spoiler averse: I’m being deliberately vague here), a gradually building sequence that takes its time to set up all the pieces, explodes, reaches a calm, and then grows more tense as we realize that there’s something that Dwight didn’t count on. Saulnier’s use of limited perspective (both in terms of the narrative and the use of the camera) is especially effective, given Dwight’s lack of planning and his clear lack of skill in violence.

Unfortunately, the film soon takes a turn for the obvious as Dwight is reunited with his family. Given that the film is more about the consequences of revenge than the act itself, it makes sense that Saulnier would reveal what, exactly, Dwight’s vengeance is for before leading up to the fallout. But as soon as the film clarifies Dwight’s mindset, he immediately becomes less interesting. What was once frighteningly opaque is now simple, and while Blair’s work as a meek, frightened version of the man (complete with a clean-shaven, softer look) is strong, the character loses the thrilling immediacy he held in the first half hour.

That isn’t to say that Blue Ruin’s next hour is without interest. Saulnier crafts a number of terrific set-pieces (including a home-invasion that sees Dwight on the defensive), and there is something refreshing about a thriller protagonist who’s weak and clearly out of his element, never more so than when he tries to perform makeshift surgery on an injury and finds that it isn’t quite as easy as it is in the movies. The character actor Devin Ratray (one of the dipshit cousins from Nebraska) also gives a memorable turn as a gun-nut buddy of Dwight’s who’s wary of what his old friend has planned. But the story further devolves into a rote sins-of-the-father narrative, a cycle of violence that’s understandable but irritatingly mechanistic. Saulnier is a director of considerable talent, but it’s exasperating when a film that started so fresh winds up at a place that feels predetermined.

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