“Just shoot,” says a character in Jeremy Saulnier’s revenge thriller, “Blue Ruin.” “No speeches.”
His characters might not always follow that advice, but Saulnier, who is also an outstanding cinematographer (“I Used to be Darker”), takes it to heart. With scarcely a word of dialogue, through subtle details and shrewd editing, he sets up the main elements of his story. As an exercise in cinematic style, “Blue Ruin” is well worth seeing.
It starts with a bearded man, Dwight Evans (the name might be a distraction for Red Sox fans), soaking in a tub. Startled by a noise, he jumps out of a window and sneaks off, nearly naked, across the backyard as the real residents unexpectedly arrive. Later, he scours garbage bags for food at a carnival, and finally retreats to the blue ruin of the title, a 1990 rusted Bonneville riddled with bullet holes. A police officer awakens him the next morning and shows him a newspaper story about a murderer released from prison. Robotically, Evans inserts a corroded battery into his car and hits the road, penetrating deeper into the fog shrouding the highway. In a few sketch-like strokes, Saulnier relates the essentials of the story: a badly damaged man has withdrawn from life, and at last sees an opportunity for revenge.
This minimal approach succeeds in part because it’s a story we’ve seen many times before: the marginalized outsider resorting to violent acts to restore justice. But “Joe,” “A Single Shot,” “Out of the Furnace” and others all tart up their revenge tales with a voyeuristic delectation of squalor and human debasement, providing a kind of cinematic “poorism.” By not caricaturizing his characters, or wallowing in the poverty of their lives and environment, Saulnier allows them dignity and individuality, and injects fresh life into a hackneyed plot.
“Blue” also differs in the nature of its hero. Played by Macon Blair, Evans, once he shaves off his imposing, messianic beard, is more like Nathan Lane than Liam Neeson. He’s an inept, apologetic avenger, bug-eyed with doubt and terror, someone who seems compelled not by fury but by an obligation to play a role, as if, like Hamlet, he finds himself caught up in a tragedy he really wants no part of. This is a bad state of mind for someone taking on the Cleland clan, a gun-toting family that is like the rural Virginia version of the tightknit, sociopathic matriarchy in David Michôd’s terrific 2010 noir, “Animal Kingdom.”
But, rather than failure, ineptitude and uncertainty seem to guarantee a much messier success. “Blue” calls to mind the Coen brothers’ black comic, sometimes sadistic debut, “Blood Simple.” Saulnier’s effort is less stylized and inspired than the Coens’ masterpiece, but draws on some of the same Olympian detachment. No speeches about the meaning of life or death or the human soul, just put a character in a diabolical, impossible situation, and keep shooting.