Blue Ruin is the little tiny engine that could. Written and directed, as well as shot, by Jeremy Saulnier (mainly a cinematographer), it was a dream project for him, something he managed to pull together with its integrity intact. There are no bankable stars in it. It stars Macon Blair, a virtually unknown actor (not anymore), who had grown up with Saulnier, the two of them making zombie movies together when they were kids. Macon Blair was set for the lead role in Blue Ruin. That was non-negotiable. And so of course when they went to cast the rest of the roles, the question would come up: “Who’s the star?” “Oh, some guy named Macon Blair and he’s best friends with the director.” You know. That sounds pretty sketchy. However. They developed the project on a shoestring, got some producers involved who helped finance, bridged the gap with a Kickstarter campaign, storyboarded the whole thing so there was no margin for error, cast the movie, and started filming in Rehoboth Beach (and a couple of other locations, mainly in Virginia, where both Saulnier and Blair grew up.)
There are no stars in it, although, holy mackerel, Eve freakin’ Plumb is in it, and she’s awesome. Small part, but awesome. But other than that, no one is a name. They had a shoestring crew who worked miracles. It looks like there is so much money on the screen, but there isn’t at all. The lighting, the framing, the shots (they used a camera slider to get all of those subtle eerie camera movements), the mood, atmosphere … It looks as though it has been art directed within an inch of its life, and yet it hasn’t been. They filmed in their childhood homes for a couple of key locations. They used minimal lighting. The location scouting is superb, seriously, because they were able to utilize those locations in an artful and poetic way, turning an empty parking lot into an ominous moody portentous space, merely by using the available light at the actual location.
Saulnier is a cinematographer by trade, although he had directed a couple of things which didn’t really work out, career-wise. That obviously will change now. But his cinematographer background shows in every setup, every shot, the camera moving stealthily, beautifully, and sometimes going to handheld, obviously a practical choice when filming a fight scene, for example, in a tight space, but also a stylistic choice. Everything is deliberate, everything is chosen, everything is in service to the story. Blue Ruin is not a mood-piece or a tone-poem, where Image is All. The story keeps you on the proverbial edge of your seat. It was unbearably stressful in certain sections. I had to watch some scenes with one hand placed over my eye. It reminded me of Blood Simple, in some respects, in that it is steeped in the genre tradition of the revenge film, and yet it is humanized, made fragile and ambiguous. The images are so beautiful you want to hang them on your wall and yet they don’t take away from the story. It is not a director showing off (not entirely). Every image serves that story.
From the first shot to the last. The spell is never broken. I wish I had seen it in the theatre.
Blue Ruin was not accepted to Sundance, and that was a blow. Things sort of fell apart for a while. But then they worked more on the final cut, honing, paring down, and that time was well spent. Blue Ruin was then accepted to Cannes, where it made its premiere. Surreal, for these guys who had basically had day jobs only a year before. Before the film had even ended at Cannes, one of the producers was called out of the screening by a couple of distributors who wanted to make a deal. The audience response was exhilarating. The film WORKS.
I hesitate to say more. I went in not knowing anything about the plot itself. I knew about the movie, because you couldn’t possibly avoid hearing about it if you were tuned in to film news. Critics I respected were raving about it. It had no recognizable names in it. But the enthusiasm was catching. However, it was certainly a bonus, watching it without knowing one thing about the plot. I like to do that as much as I can. The film starts slowly, immersing us with the daily maneuvers of a homeless guy whose name turns out to be Dwight (this is Macon Blair). He has a long red beard. He sleeps in his car (a battered rusted blue Pontiac, the “blue ruin” of the title, and Jeremy Saulnier’s actual mother’s actual car). He rummages through trash on the boardwalk, eating people’s tossed-out French fries. He sits under the boardwalk looking out at the waves. He breaks into other people’s homes. Not to steal, but to take a bath. He is a ghostly presence, obviously cut off from anything other than sheer survival.
That changes when a kindly cop, who knows him by name, takes him into the station to inform him that “Wade Cleland” is being released on bail. She wanted him to hear the news in a safe space. The reaction on Macon Blair’s face to that name, to the news she imparts, is so emotionally powerful, and yet so … buried beneath his exterior – the beard, the dirt, the abstract quality of his daily suffering … that you’re not sure what it all means. All you know is that a mine has been exploded from deep within this man’s memory banks. And everything changes. We don’t learn who “Wade Cleland” is for 10, 15 more minutes. The film is very careful in doling out its exposition. When it comes, it feels graceful. And most of it comes in the final third of the film. And even then, there are still blanks, mysteries.
It’s a revenge film that takes a very ambiguous stance towards revenge. Dwight is not a hero. He is damaged, perhaps beyond repair, by what was done to him. He has clipped himself off the line and floated out into space. His friend Ben (the wonderful Devin Ratray, who has had a hell of a year, appearing also in Nebraska, although he will always have my heart as the gentle sweet gay guy who cosplayed as Dean Winchester in “The Real Ghostbusters,” the “convention episode” of Supernatural) drove around town putting out missing posters, when Dwight disappeared. But now Dwight returns. The scenes between Dwight and Ben are BEAUTIFULLY written and full of unexpected and welcome character development. Ben lives in a cabin in the woods. He has a veritable arsenal in a locker. He was in the Marines. He is clearly a survivalist of some kind, although he does work in a bar. He is also a sweet and kindly guy, resourceful, concerned, and looking on his friend from high school with a mixture of baffled affection and truly deep morally-based concern. “I’m not helping you because this is the right thing to do,” he says at one point.
And this is for the Supernatural fans who show up here for obvious reasons: As we all know, Devin Ratray played a sweet guy who was obsessed with the character of Dean Winchester from the fictional Supernatural books, and loved dressing up as the guy and role-playing as a fun escape from the mundanity of his own life.
He is given a monologue at the end of that episode, with the camera pushing in on him, as he explains to a pissed-off and confused actual Dean (Jensen Ackles) what “Dean Winchester” means to him. He plays it absolutely sincerely, 100% heart, and it’s such a strange and beautiful moment, the feelings of the fans of the actual television show put into the mouth of this nerdy guy who may be judged by the outside world for devoting so much of his life to a fandom, but his monologue gives dignity and depth to the fan experience. He knocks it out of the park. And so I am always happy when he shows up in things, but I was particularly happy here because #1: It’s a great film. It premiered at Cannes. Boo-yah, Ratray, you go with your bad self. And #2: In Blue Ruin, he gets to play an actual Dean Winchester type of guy. A no-holds-barred tough guy. A guy who could survive in the woods by himself if he had to. A guy who knows how to do stuff, knows how to handle a crisis, keeps his cool. A guy who also has a moral compass and recognizes that his friend Dwight has lost his. What to do, what to do … He helps, but he makes it clear his feelings about it. Their final hug is poignant. It’s a great great cameo. I’m a big fan.
We know how revenge films go. A man or woman has been wronged. They then turn the tables on their attackers. Sometimes the killing spree goes off the rails, as in Abel Ferrara’s cult classic Ms. 45 (I participated in a roundtable discussion with Christy Lemire and Susan Wloszczyna over at Ebert) where the lead character starts to get off on killing, and she doesn’t care who she kills, as long as he is a male. Or Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. Or any variation of Liam Neeson’s current career. When a man/woman takes the law into their own hands. A civilized society obviously cannot countenance that behavior. However, the thought of someone doing something to our families, and the thought of how we would react, how attractive getting revenge would be … it’s a universal emotion. It is something anyone can relate to. That’s why these stories are so popular and will always be with us.
One of the reasons Blue Ruin is so good (and often so hilarious) is that Dwight is not particularly up to the task of being a revenge hero in a genre film. He is physically cautious, he seems completely surprised by the rush of adrenaline that floods his system when he has put himself in danger, and his physical pain is unbearable. He does not have a stiff upper lip. He is doing what he feels he has to do, but he is terrified the whole time. He is also resourceful, and cunning, and moves through his revenge plan with the same focus that he approached the trash bins behind the boardwalk in the opening sequence. It sucks, but he has to do it. Macon Blair is nothing short of extraordinary. There are moments where his fear was so intense that I couldn’t even look at the screen, and all that was happening was him hiding in a corner. That’s how real his fear is. And yet he isn’t a buffoon. His plan is a good one, and it’s actually quite evil. He knows he will probably not survive it. But it has to be done, otherwise the revenge cycle will never end. He takes it upon himself to end it.
Saulnier obviously has an excellent eye for casting the right people. Who would have thought of Eve Plumb as the harassed and pissed-off matriarch of a Virginia family which is part raging hillbilly and part McMansion strivers who drive around in a fleet of obnoxious white limousines? She’s awesome. Saulnier resisted the siren call of famous actors, and so we get to see new faces too, always a huge pleasure. Amy Hargreaves is superb in her two scenes as Dwight’s sister, who is trying to recover from what was done to her family, and yet the wounds are still there, all over her face, despite her neat elegant up-do. She’s awesome. Kevin Kolack, an actor/college professor, plays Teddy Cleland, the brother of the notorious “Wade”, and he’s really only got one scene, and it is unforgettable. He has a sudden spontaneous moment where he bursts out laughing and it’s so real I had to rewind it to watch it unfold all over again. Every small part is played to perfection.
There’s clearly a reason why hard-core film fans are loving Blue Ruin. Every single shot is a feast for the eyes. Every camera move, every color choice, even red neon takes on meaning and poetry in the way Blue Ruin is filmed. It’s even more extraordinary when you realize just how low budget this thing really was.
One of the most elusive elements in film, and yet one of the most important, is mood. Without mood, you just have a stylistic exercise. You have pretty shots, framed interestingly, and the audience is left empty. Blue Ruin is STEEPED in mood. The mood is one of loss, dread, fear, and rage. All of these things are fearsome enemies, things that keep Dwight from realizing his goal. He fights with them all along the way. He is a compelling screen presence. I could not take my eyes off of him. Frankly, I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was true across the board, because you know how hard they had to work, how careful and specific they had to be, to get it right on the screen. There would be no time or money to create the movie in the editing room, there would be no re-shoots, there would be nothing extra. The movie is the movie. Saulnier had to capture it onscreen. He does.
I am not cynical, and I want everything to be good. I approach every movie from that perspective. But when something is this good, it makes you sit up and take notice.