Revenge is the sweetest vice; the possibility of virtuous violence. Violence without revenge is brutality, but with it, violence can become justice. Blue Ruin puts all of those easy abstractions to death.
The film has the making of a plain revenge flick. A man called Dwight has been living in a car at the beach, washing by breaking into other people’s bathrooms and eating discarded sandwiches, apparently unable to join society since his parents were killed. The man locked up for killing them is, at the start of the film, freed. Dwight pledges revenge. It starts, and falls apart, from there.
In the history of revenge in film it rarely figures as a meaningful emotion, except for as a cause. We know that, say, Rambo or Django is upset because they are driven to do terrible things; those terrible things are justified because they are upset. Revenge has usually worked to actively exclude emotion — once a character settles on it, all other concerns (including what made them upset in the first place) quickly leave their head. (It’s also an opportunity for directors to revel in violence and feel righteous about it.) For those reasons, it’s a cinematic emotion — a prompt to plot. Blue Ruin reconfigures it as a prompt to character, too.
But it’s very interested in those films, and their tropes, too. An attempt to stab the tires of a car to prevent it giving chase leads to a gash in the hand of the stabber. One character receives an arrow through his leg — cinema has taught us that they come straight back out with a little tug, but we are forced to watch the gory and prolonged process of its being ripped out (and the trip to the hospital that results). The army-trained buddy that lends a hand on the path to revenge is retired and working as a soundman for obscure metal bands. Dwight is warned by a friend not to make any speeches — and it’s the fact that he can’t resist that leads at least in part to his undoing. In that way Blue Ruin and its characters are not trying not to be a revenge film — it accepts itself as an inevitable and willing part of that genre — but it’s trying to make one that happens in something like real life.
Those moments of failure are funny; most of the people in this film are unsuited for being in it, and bad at being revengers. The film has been compared with the work of the Coen Brothers, and that’s a good place to start — it shares similarities with the honest vengeance of True Grit, though none of that film’s knowing glances or chummy references. It takes many of its cues from comedy, though there are very few jokes. (Some people laughed in my showing, but it was one of those awkward, uncertain, self-critical laughs.) Those bathetic moments listed above are the kind of studious, winking things that are more likely to happen in, say, Scary Movie or Austin Powers, or whatever. Those films seem often to come from a place of ‘It wouldn’t happen like that in real life’ — a response I’ve mostly heard with respect to horror and action films, the most fertile ground for these kinds of parodies — and Blue Ruin does the same, though it’s played not for laughs but alternately for visceral horror and touching emotion. Revenge is a fantasy, and fantasies are almost always funny. Dwight lingers too long before committing his first murder, and his face is a picture of terror when he does it; he’s not very good at revenge, at least at first, and shows us that we likely wouldn’t be either.
Dwight is played by Macon Blair, who hasn’t really been in anything but has an instant that-guy feel, probably because he looks like everyone. (Incidentally, he has played someone called Dwight or Macon in all but one of his last 6 films.) He begins the film haggard, bearded and tattooed. When he cleans himself up — part disguise, part re-invention — it’s easy to expect that what will come out the other side is a toned, handsome killing machine. In fact it’s a podgy everyman. The film questions everything that put him there. At times, it feels that he’s propelled as much by the urge to satisfy film and life’s revenge trope as by any actual desire to do so. We learn that the violence might not even be just (a necessary requirement for filmic revenge) and that it is unhealthy — he could have lived a happier life by moving on, by not becoming consumed by vengeance-lust.
Revenge is vicious: it is nasty and often wrong. It tends to injustice, while finding its power from pretending to be the opposite. But it is seductive, too. Blue Ruin is in equal measure a chronicle of that seduction and a warning of its consequences.