Blue Ruin

There isn’t much to say on the subject of seeking revenge that isn’t covered by the old proverb about digging two graves first, yet we continue to crave movies in which people set out to satisfy the demands of justice by way of vengeance. “Blue Ruin,” a standout representative of this grim genre, is a tightly focused and uncluttered suspense drama about a man on a tragic mission. With no pretenses about reinventing the wheel, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier delivers a simple but gripping piece of somber entertainment.

Our sad hero is Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), a shaggy drifter living out of his car in the Delaware/New Jersey area. The vehicle is a rusty, decrepit 1990 Pontiac Bonneville with what appear to be bullet holes in the body; like Dwight, the car is a wreck that is somehow still functioning, though just barely. Dwight is asleep in the backseat one morning when a local cop (who knows him by name) comes to gently inform him of something: “He’s going to be released.”

The pronoun needs no antecedent. Dwight knows who “he” is: Wade Cleland, the murderer who’s been in prison for almost 20 years for destroying Dwight’s family. We understand by implication that Dwight was devastated by the killings, suffered a breakdown, and never recovered. He’s been off the grid ever since. Even now, his sister, Sam (Amy Hargreaves), doesn’t know where he is.

Dwight seems to have already considered what he would do if Wade Cleland ever got out of prison, and he does it without hesitating. That’s not the end of things, though (it’s never that simple, is it?), as the other unsavory members of the dirty Cleland family rally around Wade. The situation escalates slowly but unstoppably, and Saulnier isn’t afraid to let dark humor seep in as Dwight, who isn’t accustomed to this sort of thing, tries to stay a step ahead of the Clelands, who are. His disheveled appearance already the comical antithesis of the typical reluctant action hero, Dwight is even more absurd when he’s covered in blood or nursing an injury, or when he’s missing a close-range shot because he’s never fired a gun before. It’s only natural for us to laugh bitterly at the futility of it all, even as we admire his resilience and cheer his gradual demonstration of MacGyver-like resourcefulness.

Macon Blair, who appeared in Saulnier’s short films and prior feature, “Murder Party,” gives a riveting and forlorn central performance here. He plays Dwight as sad and ruined but not pitiful or pathetic, a man at the end of his rope who doggedly persists in doing what he feels must be done. Amy Hargreaves (from TV’s “Homeland”) is quietly effective as Dwight’s sister; Devin Ratray proves useful as an old high school buddy of Dwight’s who’s familiar with firearms; and Kevin Kolack has a nice sinister turn as one of the sleazy Clelands.

Saulnier tells his story with elegant spareness. Though events of the past play an important role, the film is set entirely in the present. There are no flashbacks, or even detailed conversations about it. The characters involved all know what happened. What is there to talk about? (“I’m not used to talking this much” Dwight says to Sam when they do finally reconnect.) This refreshing lack of extraneous dialogue makes what IS said all the more significant, and it gets right to the heart of the matter: everyone believes that their own actions are justified. Villains don’t consider themselves villains. That’s why revenge stories, if they’re realistic, are always so tragic. Even when you win, you lose.

B+ (1 hr., 30 min.; R, brief but graphic violence, some profanity.)

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