This time of year, seeing (and increasingly, hearing) all the top ten lists fills me with a sense of inadequacy. All these people who have seen a ton more movies than I have! The year started out well for me cinematically speaking, making more trips to the movie theater than at any time since my kids were born. However, as the year wore on, getting to the theater got harder and harder. Thaddeus has alluded to the trials we went through to see Snowpiercer on a big screen, and I was thwarted in my attempts to get to the theater for a couple of personal must-sees--Interstellar in IMAX and Guardians of the Galaxy, at all.
One thing that struck me while listening to the Slashfilmcast's Top 10 movies of the year episode is that a few of 2014's must-see movies have already made it to Netflix streaming. Since I wasn't quite in the mood for an experience as "opaque" as Under the Skin, and had a little trepidation about metaphysical relationship drama The One I Love, I decided to catch up with the indie revenge flick, Blue Ruin.
When Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) hears that Wade Clelland is getting out of jail, he has cause to seek revenge. What he lacks, in the words of Liam Neeson’s memorable monologue from Taken, is a “very particular set of skills.” Dwight, who when we first meet him is a vagrant haunting a Delaware beach community, has some survival skills—he forages through dumpsters for food pretty well, and he has strategies for finding a place to bathe when he needs one—but for the most part he's a regular guy with little of the attitude or aptitude required for a revenge mission.
Cinema used to have a healthy preoccupation with the plight of the normal guy forced into a world of violence. The original Death Wish was about a peacenik architect learning the ways of violence after his family is victimized. Straw Dogs had nebbishy Dustin Hoffman defending his home against a lynch mob in rural England. Eventually, as the Death Wish sequels piled up—along with the corpses of Paul Kersey’s raped and murdered relatives, friends, and employees--the curiosity about amateur revenge-seeking gave way to thrill seeking. By the end, Charles Bronson’s protagonist was just another action hardass, spouting one-liners and bringing increasingly powerful ordinance to bear against an endless army of punks.
Over time, the film industry seemed to give up on the premise of the normal guy completely. They figured out that if you gave your protagonist some baseline violence skills—make him a hit man, a cop, a spy, a Navy SEAL, or a Kung Fu assassin—you could skip straight ahead to the entertaining murders without the amateur learning curve or the hand-wringing about the revenge-seeker losing his humanity. Green Berets get revenge; the rest of us get therapy.
Blue Ruin is a quiet, extremely procedural film. It’s interested in the minute-by-minute “how” of someone who is starting from as close as possible to zero working their way to revenge against someone who, while not himself a member of a clan of super-ninjas, is at the very least is a bad guy who knows one end of a gun from the other.
Director Jeremy Saulnier wrings enormous tension from a tiny budget, a relatively small cast, and steady doses of inchoate dread. While this film has been compared to the work of the Cohen Brothers (there's at least one scene that quotes from and remarks on a famous sequence from No Country for Old Men), the film that came to mind watching it was the first part of Park Chan Wook's Vengeance Trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, another story of people who are out of their depth and haven't quite thought out the consequences of their actions.
As Dwight, Blair is a revelation. The entire film hangs on his performance, particularly in long dialogue-free scenes where Dwight's alone, preparing and waiting for something to happen. Dwight isn't a charismatic protagonist--he's a damaged, awkward individual who doesn't always know what he's doing. Blair keeps us on his side by making us constantly aware that he knows he's out of his depth, that every step in the process is a new and uncomfortable ordeal.
As we see Dwight struggle to keep his head above water, Blue Ruin powerfully evokes the exhaustion of being stuck in a cycle you can't break. Very highly recommended.