Skip to main content

The keys are in the car.

Blue Ruin
(2013)

(SPOILERS) If Jeremy Saulnier’s gripping, low-key revenge thriller is guilty of anything, it’s underplaying. That’s not so much a criticism as an attempt to explain why it might not have found the widest of audiences. From it’s measured, assured unfolding to muted lead character, Blue Ruin is a finely crafter slow-burn suspenser.


It’s also pretty much an anti-revenge flick. Vigilante justice is dispensed by one wholly ill-equipped for it, but so ravaged by the effects of loss upon his psyche that he is compelled to act. There is no uplift or catharsis resulting from the actions of Dwight (Macon Blair). The murder of his parents has left him an unkempt drifter, living off the map in the car that was the scene of the crime (and the blue ruin of the title). On learning of the release from prison of Wade Cleland, the man convicted of their murder, Dwight confronts and stabs him to death in a club toilet.


That isn’t the end of the matter, as the rest of the Cleland clan vow revenge. This brings Dwight’s sister and her family into danger, and Dwight is forced to continue the escalating blood feud.


It wouldn’t take much to tell this story in a very different way. Indeed, such films are rife, with much more classically heroic, impassioned protagonists. Saulnier is careful to snatch such comfort away from the viewer. We spend the entire movie in the company of Dwight, but he remains an enigmatic figure. Introverted, dishevelled and unaccustomed to talking to others, he’s the most unlikely seeker of retribution conceivable. He has no real skills for his self-appointed task, other than a determination to end the reprisals. He gets lucky with his initial assault, but further encounters show him to be woefully out of his depth.


Dwight makes frequent and fundamental errors, shining a flashlight around in a darkened house, stealing a gun with a clamp on it, unsuccessfully attempting a DIY repair of an arrow wound, and completely failing to dispatch one of the Clelands in his trunk (“Fish in a barrel” mocks his prisoner, “You missed from two yards?” comments Ben). Most significantly, Dwight initiates a wave of violence through being misinformed. Wade took the rap for his dying father so, even if the family are entirely culpable of many and varied crimes, there’s no one left to account for this particular one.


The comments of his sister (Amy Hargreaves) are especially resonant. She may be pleased when she hears Wade is dead, but when her family is threatened she is less sympathetic to her brother (“I’d forgive you if you were crazy. But you’re not, you’re weak”). The implication is clear; Dwight lacks the strength to carry on with his life. He has been stuck in the same space for nigh-on two decades, and it has blinded him. His recognition of the full tragedy comes in his conversation with the remaining Clelands during the bloody final scene; “You know what’s awful? Just cos my dad loved your mom, we all end up dead”. The only hope is that his half-brother (the fruit of the union between his pa and the Cleland ma), who shot but didn’t want to kill Dwight and flees the scene leaving his gun behind, has ended the cycle.


Dwight’s personality isn’t laid out on a plate, but that makes him a much more fascinating character. Our first sighting is of man gone to seed, dilapidated and hirsute, but a shave and haircut reveals a small bookish fellow. He’s quietly methodical, emphasised by the rigorous order with which he cleans up after himself. If he lacks the traits of the classical hero, and if his sister has something in her comments, Dwight is armed with the admirable trait of stoicism in the face of a certain demise. 


He is also characterised by sadness rather than righteous fury, the final confrontation emphasising his regretfulness rather than malice or hatred. The Clelands, in contrast, are a particularly loathsome, irredeemable bunch. Had Saulnier chosen to emphasise this aspect he could easily have turned this into a victory over those who “had it coming”.


Besides Blair, who has something of Paul Giamatti but understated, the most memorable turn comes from Devin Ratray as Ben, an old school friend and veteran. His career stretches back to Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and beyond, but he was most recently notable in Nebraska. His particular (legally rigorous but morally flexible) code (“I had to wait for him to aim before I could shoot”) emphasises a rich vein of subdued humour throughout, from Dwight having to escape in the car whose tyre he just slashed to his pathetic, little boy confession at the emergency room (“I had an accident on my leg”) and his trunk prisoner’s offer of help when Dwight says he will not let him out until he is armed (“I can get you a gun!”)


Saulnier has made a great little thriller, but one that requires perseverance. There’s minimal dialogue during the first half hour (a third of the picture’s concise running time) and he maintains the subdued aspect of his protagonist throughout. It will be interesting to see if his follow up, Green Room, sustains the quality on show here.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).