United States. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, 2013. Starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves. 90 minutes.

Unkempt and withdrawn, Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) lives “off the grid” in Delaware. He breaks into houses for baths, scavenges for food and lives in his broken-down, pale blue Pontiac Bonneville.

One day, someone raps on the car’s window. It’s Officer Eddy of the local P.D. She has a message for Dwight.

Years ago, Wade Cleland, Jr., murdered Dwight Evans’s mother and father. He went to prison for his crime. And soon, within days, his term will be over.

Dwight’s demeanor changes the minute he hears the news. He fixes his car, sends a postcard to his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), and unsuccessfully attempts to get a gun. He hits the road, his destination a place he hasn’t seen in a long, long time.

Home.

By pure chance, Dwight comes across the Cleland family, celebrating Wade’s release at a meeting hall just outside the small Virginia town where he grew up. Within minutes, Wade lies on the floor of the men’s room, dead by Dwight’s hand.

Dwight gets away–but not unseen. Soon, the Cleland family will come for him, and probably his sister and her young daughters. He’s got to get them first.

It’s the only way.

It’s an old story. The wronged man takes up arms, to take vengeance on those who persecuted him. But at the end of it all, he rarely finds that revenge delivers the catharsis and closure he seeks. Instead, he finds the price he pays is terrible indeed, and he is worse off than he was before. He sees, to his sorrow, the truth behind the old saying: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

That’s not how Dwight’s story goes, not exactly. It’s not hard to guess that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin won’t end with Dwight Evans perched triumphantly atop a mound of Cleland corpses. But it’s not the process of vengeance that destroys him. He’s a broken man, damned the day his parents died. He’s a tragic figure, unable to take any step that doesn’t bring him closer to his looming fate. Awkward and inept, he’s nobody’s idea of a hero.

“I could feel sorry for you if you were crazy,” Sam tells him, “but you’re just weak.”

The direction is poetic and spare, occasionally interrupted by scenes of intense suspense and harrowing violence. The cracked urban pavements and long shots of vast, empty rural land reflect the characters’ mental states. Some of the dialogue is quite clever (I’m very fond of “The guy with the gun gets to tell the truth”) and there’s a thin streak of black comedy running through the story, but the overall tone is bleak. The script sparingly doles out backstory, and while there are surprises and twists, it thankfully doesn’t hinge on an all-important third-act shock plot twist. Haunting ambient soundscapes, provided by Brooke and Will Blair, underline the action, along with the occasional country and western song.

Blair (who also executive-produced) inhabits the lead role of Dwight and carries the film with it. It’s not just in his line readings (sometimes intense, sometimes scattershot). His physical presence is just as important, and even after cleaning up and changing from a scraggly-bearded, creepy-looking drifter to someone you wouldn’t look twice at passing on the street, Blair looks the part of a man driven by demons. It’s in the eyes, mainly.

The other performances are quite good, especially Hargreaves (best known for playing Claire Danes’s sister on Homeland), Devin Ratray as Dwight’s gun-fondling childhood friend and Kevin Kolack, Stacey Rock and Eve Plumb (yup, that Eve Plumb) as various Clelands.

Quirky yet hauntingly dark, Blue Ruin is one of the best films of 2014 so far. Highly recommended for fans of the Coen Brothers’ darker films, such as Blood Simple and Fargo.

P.S. Jeremy Saulnier may seem to have come out of nowhere, but several months ago my friends Jori and John introduced me to his first film, 2007’s Murder Party; we discussed it in the April episode of the Forced Viewing Podcast. As riotously hilarious as Blue Ruin is spare and grim, this merciless evisceration of pretentious art-scene sycophants is one of the finest horror-comedies of recent years. It also stars Macon Blair, as well as two other Blue Ruin actors, Cleland siblings Stacey Rock and Alex (Sandy) Barnett. I wholeheartedly recommend it. “Fuck the scene! Everybody dies!”

Blue Ruin poster

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