Blue Ruin is a revenge thriller in the style of the original, pre-franchise Death Wish. I mean that not in terms of performances or direction, which is quite different and not to be compared. The similarity here is simply in the fact that the focus of the movie, unlike most revenge plots, is a poorly defined, somewhat aimless act of rage, rather than the brilliantly executed operatic revenge of most action movies or thrillers.
The film begins with a homeless man living in his car (which I can only assume is where the name of the movie comes from) finding out that the killer of his parents is being released from prison. There is no dramatic flashback to the tragedy that spurs him to act as he does. All that we see is his current life, which hints much more subtly at the pain Dwight, played with great sensitivity by Macon Blair, has experienced due to the trauma. He goes into action, seeking out his revenge in the first act of the film. Rather than making that the main drama, however, the film asks what the consequences of this act of violence will be. Or did he even get the right guy? Is simply executing the man who already went to jail for the crime the justice he seeks?
Blue Ruin could easily suffer from having a somewhat passive protagonist, if Macon Blair’s performance wasn’t so imbued with humanity. It’s rare to see a thriller’s lead be so meek while heading head-first into danger. The movie is largely silent, as Dwight seeks to end the terrible situation he finds himself in. I will say that, perhaps in part due to the silence of the movie, the character’s motivation for the specific actions he is undertaking is occasionally unclear. The aim of the character is not to identify with the character, but rather to follow him through his experience from the outside. We are offered glimpses into the character only through his actions, and in that respect us feeling like we do understand the character, his backstory, or his mental state at all is to the filmmaker’s credit.
The filmmaker behind this film is Jeremy Saulnier, who does a great job of creating a genuine feeling world. While I know next to nothing about the young director, whether or not this is informed by any real experience is irrelevant in that context. The story of a family feud’s tragic climax feels very real, and the fact that the direction regularly works in glimpses and closeups, allowing us to see in detail the meticulous way Dwight goes through his life (and, later, vengeance) only intensifies this feeling.