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The first person we see in Alexandria native Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin looks like a killer. With a bedraggled, long-haired Charles Manson look, Dwight (Macon Blair, also from Alexandria) is soaking in the tub of a house he broke into. He lives in a rusty old car riddled with bullet holes, picks up bottles for the recycling refunds, and eats out of trash cans. Dwight passes the time by reading books, but when a cop wakes him from a backseat snooze and takes him in, you’re surprised when she speaks gently and says he’s not in trouble.
Yet, in a way, he is: The man convicted for murdering Dwight’s parents is being released. So Dwight puts the battery back in the car, turns in those bottles, and sets out for the prison to spy on the big day. When he sees the guy—and the large group who came to pick him up—Dwight’s eyes are too achingly sad for him to seem a murderer anymore. But don’t judge too quickly. Dwight follows the welcome wagon to a bar and sneaks inside with a knife.
What happens in that bar’s men’s room, in which Dwight first hides in a stall, nearly in tears, is the beginning of a mess that’s less a family feud than an all-out war. He’s got to run, and he finds (a bit too conveniently, but we’ll forgive Saulnier this script slip) a nice home whose occupants are clearly out of town. Dwight is able to take a breather, clean up, cut his hair, and change into some business-casual clothes. Now he definitely doesn’t look like a killer: Dwight is a bit of a geek, if a terrified one—indisputably one of us.
Therein lies the creativity of Saulnier’s second feature (the first being 2007’s Murder Party—anyone?). It’s not a thriller about some superhuman wielding an ax, though Dwight does at one point arm himself with a pitchfork. It’s not about a tormented family who bands together and suddenly become ace Stand Your Ground-ers. It’s about a normal dude who suffered through an unnecessary tragedy.
Dwight’s family doesn’t provide physical or even emotional support: He has only his sister, Sam (Amy Hargreaves), who tells him she’d forgive his mission if he were crazy, but he’s not. “You’re weak,” she says. How Dwight became homeless isn’t explained, but his rustbucket is registered to Sam’s address, meaning she has to take her kids and the chip on her shoulder and get out of town. He hunkers down in her home, ready—sorta—for battle.
Blue Ruin is relatively quiet, with little music and little dialogue. Its dominating component is tension, built up not only by the fact that everyone involved goes eye-for-an-eye, but also because the storyline zigs in places you expect it to zag. There are a few conventional scenes—the requisite DIY bullet removal, for instance, though here it’s an arrow—but again, the flaws in the screenplay are details to quibble over, not ones that sink the story. You’ll spend much of the movie saying “Oh fuck!” Just like Dwight.
Blair anchors the plot with convincing fear, grief, and anger, which isn’t a small achievement for a relative newcomer who’s in nearly every scene. You might question Dwight’s actions, but that adds to the exciting sense that he’s making it up as he goes along. Blue Ruin is also commendable for its strong message about the reality of violence that’s rarely found in even the bloodiest of blockbusters. When a friend unexpectedly shoots one of Dwight’s enemies, Dwight’s face goes pale, and he points to the ground and says, “It’s…his head.” The friend responds, “That’s what bullets do.”