It’s better not to know anything about “Blue Ruin” before walking it. A beard contest at the Sundance Film Festival will give some clue to its main character as well as an underlying sense of humor, but to experience the anonymous drifter you meet in the film’s opening minutes as the people he encounters do allows for a full appreciation of all the fun the film has in store for its audience.
Yet Jeremy Saulnier’s masterful thriller is built on skill, not surprises, though for anyone familiar with the filmmaker’s scrappy, fearlessly silly debut “Murder Party,” it readjusts expectations considerably. Ironically, the confidence and finesse Saulnier shows here is in direct inverse proportion to that of the aforementioned drifter (Macon Blair) at the film’s center, a man we meet escaping out the bathroom window of a house after its tenants come home. He is unexpectedly wily for someone who appears as if he’s a bum, retreating to a beat-up sedan by the beach and the blue duffel he carries with him suggests he’s been preparing for something, hinted at further when he’s picked up by police and offered sympathy for something in the past instead of being scolded for being a local nuisance.
In fact, the drifter whose name we learn is Dwight has a painful history, one that he seeks to remedy with the impending prison release of Wade Cleland, the man responsible, and whereas most films might leave this confrontation until the very end, Wade gets out of jail early, greeted by a stretch limo no less. The timing sets up a series of violent events, predictable only in the way they escalate so quickly and made all the more grisly because Dwight isn’t all that proficient in taking revenge. Years of preparation may have emboldened him to do what needs to be done, but does little to help him handle the fallout.
There’s an elegance to the way Saulnier rolls out these events as a screenwriter and ultimately shoots them as his own cinematographer that makes it all the more enjoyable to see Dwight in well over his head. The film delights in torturing Blair, whose wide-eyed expressiveness make him an unlikely heir to the squinty Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood and it’s clear after the actor previously starred in Saulnier’s “Murder Party,” the two have a trust that allows them to push the envelope in creating a character who doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes of the film and vacillates between darkly funny and frighteningly dangerous.
Amy Hargreaves and Devin Rattray each have moments to shine as help Dwight finds along the way, but it’s Blair, who moves seamlessly from innocent to vindictive to broken and confused, who carries the film, which is so immersive you only realize during its short end credits how minimal a production it is. Like Dwight, it’s remarkable what Saulnier is able to accomplish with limited resources, but even more so to create suspense that’s emotionally resonant, with the reverberation from every shot fired carrying with it the anger and hurt from previous generations. In short, it’s a stunner.
“Blue Ruin” will be released through Radius/TWC on April 25th. It plays twice more at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19th at 11:30 p.m. at the Prospector Square Theatre and January 25th at 9 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre at 9 p.m.