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Jeremy Saulnier’s Clever Revenge Riff in ‘Blue Ruin’

Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is equal parts Southern Gothic, noir, and a decidedly odd coming of age story.

“I apologize for the mystery,” says Officer Eddy (Sidné Anderson). “You’re not in any trouble, you’ll be fine.” She sits across an interview table room from Dwight (Macon Blair), and he looks anything but assured, his hair long and matted, his beard unkempt, his clothes ragged. It’s only a couple of minutes into Blue Ruin, and already you’ve seen that he’s homeless, or more specifically, living out of his 1996 Pontiac Bonneville, that he digs through amusement park trash to eat, sneaks into other people’s homes to bathe, that he’s good at evading capture or even being seen.

You don’t know exactly why Eddy knows him, though you might guess, but as she reveals why she’s picked him up — “I thought you should be somewhere safe when you found out, with somebody” — you find out what he finds out at the same time, that the man who murdered his parents when Dwight was a child is going to be released from a Virginia prison. It may be the officer’s comforting tone, it may be that Dwight’s face, for all its hirsute detail, is so painfully childlike, but as he appears unable to respond to the news with language, you feel an odd empathy, despite knowing so little about him.

In aligning you immediately with a victim who will within minutes be effecting dire revenge upon the murderer Wade Cleland (Sandy Barnett), and also his family, Blue Ruin leans a bit on generic convention. Jeremy Saulnier’s film is equal parts Southern Gothic, noir, and a decidedly odd coming of age story, wherein Dwight’s educational arc leads him further into trauma rather than out. But it’s also something of a riff on all these sorts of movies, an homage, a gloss, and a lament, asking you to wonder how such tragedy masquerading as taut comedy (see the Coen brothers, Tarantino, Billy Wilder and Kathryn Bigelow) might so reliably win over viewers. Funded largely by KIckstarter and winner of an International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) prize at 2013’s Cannes Film Festival, the film is clever but not too clever, poignant but also vexing.

That mix of effects is reflected in Blair’s perpetually mournful face, whether he’s hearing out Officer Eddy or, a few scenes later, after he’s shaved and cleaned up, meeting with his younger sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), now a mom in the burbs with kids of her own, having done her best to move on in ways plainly unfathomable to her brother. As they sit in a diner, she patiently explains that the postcard he sent that day hasn’t reached her yet, and that she has in fact been notified of Cleland’s release by mail, having an address and all. “I’m not use to talking this much,” her brother confesses. “That’s what people do,” she notes.

What Sam can’t know yet is that by the time Dwight is sitting with her in this plastic booth, he’s already taken steps, specifically, he’s already killed Wade. You’ve seen this step, performed with a blade, up close, in graphic, bloody, enormously awkward detail, in a roadhouse bathroom, the space tight and light dim, a scene that suggests emphatically this is not what people do, how they function in the world or make sense of the chaos, the random chaos, that makes up that world. Learning that Dwight is now fully a participant in that chaos (not random, but chosen, at least to a point), Sam is not shocked, as another young soccer mom might be, but rather, satisfied. “I’m glad he’s dead,” she says, looking tired, “I hope he suffered.”

While you might be mulling over just how much you misjudged Sam, or how much Dwight looks weirdly sensible next to her, or maybe how deeply these siblings’ childhood trauma might run, Dwight mentions yet another step, that the Clelands will undoubtedly be seeking their own revenge. Sam rushes back to the house to check on her children. Their trauma is now remade in the present, eternally.

And so there will be more blood, more grief and rage and failure. Dwight becomes the vehicle, as he determines that his mission is to kill every last Cleland in order to protect the niece and nephew he’s never even thought of meeting. They’re an abstract rendition of “family,” like and unlike the Clelands, an idea that takes shape in his violence. Because Dwight’s not actually a very good killer, he does seek out some assistance, an old high school friend, Ben (Devin Ratray), good with guns and possessed of several. Figuring that he can’t just send Dwight off with a “reliable” loaded carbine, he offers to train him. The practice session turns upside down, and Ben sees just a glimpse of the horrific, kooky path on which his long-absent buddy has embarked. “If it were my family,” observes ben, “I might do the same, I don’t know, but I’m not helping out because this isn’t right, this is ugly, man.”

It gets uglier. And as it does, the lessons become more apparent to you, if not to Dwight, whose late encounters with Clelands involve women and children more than burly men with tattoos. As he has the chance to speak with a few of them before and during the more brutal moments during their encounters, he comes to realize that this question of what’s right” is not so crucial as he might have thought, and that it’s certainly not a fixed notion. “That’s the way this works, man,” he sees, “The one with the gun gets to tell the truth.” And so you see, this is ugly, in more ways that Dwight can know.

RATING 8 / 10