If you want another movie that says revenge is a messy, unsatisfying prospect for the one taking revenge, but a thrill for the audience watching, here’s Blue Ruin. It tells one of those stories that gives a protagonist a good reason to get all wound up with thoughts of enacting bloody vengeance upon the people who done him wrong and then sees where he takes that impulse. Usually, this means getting at least an instant of a kick out of the gory settling of scores. Writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s movie is too spare and clammy for that. Here revenge is actually messy, is hard to pull off, and resolutely not glamorized. It’s just not worth it for the characters and almost not worth it to watch.
Our protagonist is Dwight (Macon Blair), sweaty and nervous, bumbling his way towards killing the man responsible for the deaths of his parents. We watch Dwight for a long time before we realize what’s happening, and even when we do Saulnier takes great pains to show us the residual anxiety that spreads out amongst his family, as his sister (Amy Hargreaves) worries and would really rather he not go through with it. His target has just gotten out of prison, news grave enough to snap him out of his homeless-beach-bum lifestyle. He heads off in pursuit, eventually cornering the man and causing great harm, an action that brings his target’s family into the equation as well. Two wrongs don’t make a right, even and especially when it all seems to lead towards a gunfight.
Saulnier unspools his plot through long stretches of patient (sometimes aimless) silence and fumbling dialogue. The silences are cold and observant, regarding the proceedings from a polished remove with cinematography that gives grasping desperation and cheap settings an oddly formal handsome quality. The dialogue is sometimes darkly funny, like when our uneasy protagonist ends up getting into an argument with a man who he has locked in the trunk of a car, the queasy laughs coming into the picture sideways as he slowly loses the upper hand before a sudden bloody punctuation stops the exchange dead. By the time the deliberate plot finds reason for some key plot twists to be revealed, we’ve thoroughly exhausted any reason to want to see further violence, but Dwight grimly soldiers on.
It all leads up to a final confrontation sick with dread and broken with violence. It’s inevitable and predictable. But it is also some mild sort of satisfying to see a revenge-is-messy movie actually commit to the mess. Usually in stories of this type we’re supposed to get a sick kick out of the bloodshed while the storyteller summons up just enough energy for a wagging finger of shame over the sad and sorry state of human affairs. There’s some of that here – you don’t cast Eve Plumb, Jan Brady herself, in a key climactic role and expect to walk away without some extratextual pulpy fun – but it’s as horrible, scary, and sad as it is a much needed jolt of energy to a movie that’s threatening to dwindle away into nothing for most of its runtime.