Dwight (Macon Blair), the lead character of “Blue Ruin,” is a haggard, defeated, middle-aged man. His clothing clings to him, as if to avoid callously slipping to the ground. His beard seems to have formed on his face the way weeds gather on undernourished lawns. One of our first glimpses of his eyes come from the way they gape when he finds out people are home, and he’s naked in the bath. His mad dash reveals this is not his house. But those eyes remain troubled even when he’s not using the homes and resources of others. The sense is that Dwight hasn’t been home for years, and he hasn’t felt at home within himself for even longer.
The picture quickly settles into a familiar genre set-up. Dwight is alerted by local police that the man convicted of murdering his parents is set to be released from prison. The fact that authorities have accepted Dwight’s local vagrancy suggests the details of the killing are far more troubling than we can imagine. Whatever happened has caused Dwight to become the inward, rootless drifter he’s become, but now he has a purpose, and that purpose is revenge.
Jeremy Saulnier’s film benefits greatly from subverting familiar tropes, as Dwight very quickly finds his target and dispenses with justice swiftly. It’s at that point where the story begins: almost every film in this genre, even the more plausible ones, feature a hero who immediately slips into revenge mode. In more ridiculous movies, the hero begins to display an improbable attention to detail, setting traps and outsmarting the villains. In the more grounded revenge pictures, the protagonists still find ways to cover their tracks, to think like movie characters, maximizing their resources and managing their surroundings.
Revenge films are so popular because of that wish fulfillment: no matter how comical the most inept characters might be, they’ll eventually reveal their survivalist skills and/or bloodlust, usually in audience-pleasing moments of catharsis. But Dwight is a bumbling fool, one who immediately realizes he’s been fueled by hate, not reason, as soon as he flees from the crime scene. There’s a way to mine big dumb laughs from this approach, but Saulnier refuses to cave to this tendency. Every slip-up that Dwight makes, failing to cover his tracks, acting in a way that places others in danger, and basically diagramming a way for the killer’s family to find him, comes from a very human moment. Blair’s whimpering performance goes a long way. He speaks very little, and when he tries to make his point to punctuate his violence, he stutters. When he finally shaves, even his chin is weak.
That wish fulfillment element has always created a distancing effect when these types of films attempt to elevate the illusions of a bloodthirsty audience. “Blue Ruin” instead finds the horror in every small slip-up—Oh god, who’s watching the kids? Do you think they got my license plate? Do they know I have never fired a gun in my life? Even Dwight seems cognizant of appearing like a first-timer, like a failed attempt to Rambo-ize a wound, or the rejection of the wisdom from a local war vet (Devin Ratray), which seems to have less to do with egotism and more to do with feeling even more out of his element.
Saulnier’s first film was the underseen but wickedly funny “Murder Party.” That picture was a lark; a comedy about a group of hipsters who were torn between natural sadism and the thought that killing innocents was passé. That ironic distance is absent from Saulnier’s much more accomplished second feature, one that never leaves Dwight’s perspective, and therefore his broken prioritization of what will keep him out of danger. There are no moments of safety once Dwight has committed his first sin, and as such there are no moments of safety in “Blue Ruin.” Saulnier has made a film of almost unbearable tension, a no-frills pressure cooker that rattles the senses not just for what occurs (the brief moments of violence are convincingly staggered and upsettingly abrupt), but for what’s waiting just off screen at every turn. It’s easily the most suspenseful American film of the year, a thriller that feels like lightning across a quiet night sky; sudden, terrifying, and excitingly singular. [A-]