Jeremy Saulnier's new film Hold the Dark is currently playing in select theaters and will appear on Netflix September 28. In the meantime, it's always a good idea to visit (or revisit) Saulnier's 2013 neo-noir Blue Ruin. (The following review was originally published on my previous blog in December 2014.)
Blue Ruin is the leanest movie I’ve seen in years. In his directorial debut, Jeremy Saulnier delivers an impressive revenge story that contains no digressions, no sidetracks, and practically no subplots. It’s all extremely focused and never lets up until the very last image and even then, its impact continues to work on you.
The film opens with a haggard-looking man – well on his way to growing an Alan Moore-like beard – soaking in a bathtub. It’s an opening that reminds me of the beginning of Paris, Texas with Harry Dean Stanton walking through the desert, wearing a red cap and carrying a jug of water. In both cases, we don’t know who these characters are, where they’ve been, or where they’re going, but something in their eyes draws us in.
We soon learn that the man in the bathtub is a drifter named Dwight (Macon Blair), a man who may not look it, but has enough smarts to blend into the landscape, traveling and sleeping in a beat-up sun-faded blue Pontiac Bonneville (thus the film’s title). Dwight soon learns that the man responsible for the murder of his parents years ago is about to be released from prison. Dwight may be obsessed with exacting revenge, but he doesn’t have much of a clue how to do it. We get the impression that maybe he’s picked up some ideas from novels and movies, but when it comes to the real thing, he realizes life isn’t as well-scripted as it is in books and films.
Dwight’s ineptness is responsible for some darkly comedic moments that weave in and out of the film’s overall sense of tension in a way that feels organic. One way Saulnier creates that organic feeling is by not overwhelming us with a soundtrack that telegraphs what’s about to happen. The violence often comes at us suddenly, yet the undeniable absurdities of the situations strike a balance, keeping us from true laughter or utter despair. How would we handle these situations? Maybe not that much differently than Dwight.
There’s always someone else connected to the receiving end of vengeance and Dwight soon realizes that revenge can never be fully satisfied. Before you know it, you’re in over your head and it’s far too late to simply proclaim that you’ve had enough and want to go home.
Blue Ruin says a lot about us as a society, but it’s not a “message” film. Yes, there’s a sense of morality here and it’s necessary, otherwise all we’re left with is utter chaos. That morality is often well-placed, or at least well-intentioned. We see an injustice and grow impatient, thinking we know best how to right things on our own. We may be familiar with Romans 12:19, which says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (ESV) Yet sometimes we feel God might need a little help getting started, and hey, we’re glad to lend a hand, right?
Even if we’ve never sought revenge, we’ve thought about it. I know I have. We know Dwight has, too, wondering if it will ever end. Maybe the Romans 12:19 injunction is trying to tell us that when it comes to vengeance, we just don’t know when to quit. And even if we decide we do know when to quit, there’s no guarantee the people we’re fighting against will reach that same conclusion.
Macon Blair is in just about every scene of the film and always seems to be struggling with what he should do. They say you can believe or not believe an actor’s performance by watching the eyes and if that’s true, we believe Blair’s performance. We see him watching – both when he’s the hunter and the hunted – weighing the options, trying to gather the courage to do what he thinks needs to be done. When you look in his eyes, you believe the performance. I think you’ll believe it, too.
(And just for fun – If you’ve ever wondered what Eve Plumb [Jan from The Brady Bunch] would look like packing heat, this is the movie for you.)