Revenge is a tiresome engine for storytelling. While it makes constructing the plot easy, I don’t usually care much about a character whose only motivation is killing another character.
Movies about revenge have to offer me something else. Kill Bill, for example, is as much an exercise in style, choreography, and dialogue is it is about revenge. Beatrix Kiddo talks about her all-consuming need for revenge, but by the end of Vol. 2 we have learned quite a lot about her and her relationship with Bill. And there comes a point during a fight scene as wild as the showdown with the Crazy 88 that the plot ceases to matter; we’ve gotten this far, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the spectacle, regardless of how we got here.
Blue Ruin goes about as far from Kill Bill’s approach as is imaginable. It is a spare, uncompromising film that follows one man’s revenge process, never shifting its focus to anything else. In doing so, it becomes hypnotic. In being about nothing but revenge, it humanizes the process. Revenge is not the driving force of this story. A person is.
The story of Blue Ruin is simple as they come. A Dwight (Macon Blair) is a homeless drifter who finds out that the man who murdered is parents has been released from prison. He tracks the man, named Wade Cleland, down, and stabs him to death in a public restroom. He takes refuge with his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), who hasn’t seen him in years. She is furious at him for his recklessness, but glad that her parents have been avenged. Dwight watches the news all day. The murder is never reported. He realizes that the Cleland clan put two and two together. They never reported Wade’s murder. They are coming after Dwight and his sister. This all plays out in the first act. The rest of the film is about Dwight’s attempt to keep his sister and nieces safe, and finally put an end to the cycle of bloodshed that he has reignited.
This plot alone could have been the basis of something conventional, action driven, and very likely boring. But writer/director Jeffery Saulnier is obsessed with details. He does not simply abandon scenes and locations that have served their purpose in the plot. This attention to detail gives Macon Blair a remarkable amount of material to create a memorable character in Dwight. Early in the film, Dwight attempts to steal a gun from an unattended pickup truck. The gun has a trigger lock, which Dwight spends a considerable amount of time feebly trying to remove, before finally giving up and throwing the weapon away. Sailnier could easily have dispensed with this scene, and shown Dwight showing up to confront Wade with the knife he ends up using. But instead we get to learn something about Dwight. He seems hopelessly ill-equipped to carry out a one-man war against a family that seems to have a proclivity for violence. Blair gives an extraordinary performance here, as a man whose instincts for survival are at constant odds with his need for vengeance.
Scene after scene lingers just enough on details that bring these characters to life. When Dwight seeks out his old friend Ben (Devin Ratray), in hopes of getting a gun from him, they talk about everything but Dwight’s revenge plot. Ben is happy to provide a weapon, and doesn’t want to know the details. We sense he knows exactly what is going on. Perfunctory, plot-driven dialogue quickly gets boring. Characters talking like people is far more interesting. Ben and Dwight talk about old times, in the broad, sentimental way friends who haven’t seen each other since those old times sometimes do. A brief exchange about an old photograph Ben still has of them both reveals a lot about the fondness they still have for one another. Consider what Dwight asks Ben to do with the photo; it’s a beautiful example of a film covering the bases of its plot through character-driven action.
Dwight’s final, inevitable showdown with the Cleland clan at their home is drained of the kinetic energy of an action film. By focusing so heavily on Dwight’s preparation for it, Saulnier ramps up the tension. It’s reminiscent of the sort of sweaty dread of No Country for Old Men, which relied far less on action than the anticipation of a character with his finger on a trigger. The difference is that Blue Ruin provides no primal forces of evil like Anton Chigurh. No Country For Old Men was about the baffled people left in a killer’s wake. In Blue Ruin, the baffled people are the ones doing the killing. At one point in the film, Dwight reacts with horror after someone who was trying to kill him is shot. Ben tells him, like a parent trying to comfort a scared child, “That’s what bullets do”.