This is a written version of an introduction that I shall be doing this evening for a screening of Blue Ruin at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London.
The film tells the story of Dwight (Macon Blair), a seemingly homeless guy living in a car on an anonymous beach somewhere (in Delaware – where else?). A police woman (Sidné Anderson) tells him that a man has been released from prison – and this compels Dwight to drive across the States to his hometown in Virginia to find and kill this man.
This man, Wade Cleland Jr, allegedly killed Dwight’s parents. Dwight therefore murders Wade as an act of revenge, and drives away in the stretched limo that his family has hired for the day to see him out of jail.
However, Dwight soon realises that in the limo with him is William (David W Thompson), Wade’s youngest brother. Dwight lets William go – but only to realise that of course the Clelands now know who killed Wade.
As a result, Dwight reunites with his estranged sister, Sam (Amy Hargreaves), in order to protect her from the Clelands – who of course do come in search of their revenge, too.
And so begins a cycle of revenge that culminates in the film’s final, bloody and brutal showdown at the Cleland household.
Blue Ruin has some strikingly beautiful moments in it – Dwight going through trash cans next to a seaside amusement park and Dwight’s near-dead sedan driving down the mist-filled roads of the USA are two that stick out in particular.
The latter image is in particular haunting – the mist conveying a sense of uncertainty regarding the future, adding to the film’s ominous, suspenseful tone, while also featuring Dwight’s beat up sedan which is of course blue in colour, and thus is perhaps the ‘blue ruin’ that is the film’s title.
In this sense, the film takes on a mythical quality: the once-vibrant dream of the road movie – open space and adventure – is now foggy, the adventure shabby, the future not wide open like the road, but murky and threatening. If the West once found revenge an almost thrilling prospect, it is now tired, haunted, exhausted and dulled. Everything falls into ruin; perhaps Saulnier’s remarkable film is about the fall into ruin of the USA itself.
But what has brought about this ruin? Well, it would seem in part that the desire for revenge, or the violent nature of society, has become so naturalised that even a mild-mannered and middle class man like Dwight will become sucked into it.
And how has revenge and violence become so ingrained in an American society such that it is a/the knee-jerk response to all problems? Well, at least in part through the movies.
Blue Ruin has earned comparisons to the films of the Coen Brothers, and in some senses these are justified, particularly films like Blood Simple (Joel Coen, USA, 1984), Fargo (Joel Coen, USA/UK, 1996) and No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2007). With these films Blue Ruin shares a fascination for often quite unexpected violence, delivered in a deadpan, quite detached fashion.
(Note the way that the shots in Blue Ruin just seem a little bit longer than in a conventional Hollywood film, giving a sense of space and how characters are not necessarily agents who conquer space, but who perhaps are smaller than that space, quite small in comparison – something director Saulnier no doubt acquired through his collaborations with Matthew Porterfield, for whom he worked as a cinematographer on several features, including the acclaimed Putty Hill (USA, 2010)).
However, I am going to compare Blue Ruin to another Coens film, their cult classic The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, USA/UK, 1998). There is a scene in that film in which Jeffrey Lebowski, also known as the Dude (Jeff Bridges) finds himself in the house of pornographer Jacky Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). The Dude sees Treehorn scribbling on a notepad, before Treehorn takes the piece of paper and pockets it. Treehorn then leaves the Dude, who scrambles over to the notepad, takes out a pencil, and starts to shade over the topmost piece of paper – in a bid to trace out what information Treehorn will have left.
What inspires the Dude to do this is of course Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, North by Northwest (USA, 1959), in which Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill does exactly the same thing in trying to find the location of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).
But where Thornhill is successful, the Dude only uncovers a picture of a man with a massive cock drawn by the rather puerile Treehorn.
The reason that I mention this moment is because here we have encapsulated what is perhaps the guiding genius of the Coens: the fact that everyone – at least at times – believes that they are in a movie, and so they adopt behaviour that they have seen at the movies, here the Dude imitating Thornhill, only to find that of course, they are not in the movie that they thought they were – and that reality always has in store for us something different from what we were expecting.
What is true of the Coens is in this respect perhaps also true of Saulnier’s remarkable debut film. Two key examples: when Dwight goes to stab a tyre on the limousine, and when Dwight takes a shot at Wade’s brother Teddy (Kevin Kolack) from all of two yards. Each moment in which Dwight assumes that he can carry out an action seen many times before, but never performed by himself, Dwight comes quickly undone. He has been fooled into thinking cinematically, into thinking, in particular, that actions are easy to carry out and can be done without practise and without work. This is the myth of the movies written large: that we can achieve anything. And it is this myth that Blue Ruin busts, thereby making it an exceptional film.
The body, its imperfections and inadequacies, is what looms large, then. For while violence is so easy and so beautiful in so many mainstream Hollywood movies, such that we aspire to be violent as Dwight pursues revenge here, the body always comes back to remind us that we are inept, malcoordinated and incapable. Rather than being lighter than air – the superhero myth – Dwight is human, all too human – as is signalled by the sheer physical pain he endures through the film, and through all of the fluids that ooze out of his body, which is that of a most unlikely hero.
(Macon Blair’s performance is, by the way, excellent.)
The frailty of the body, then, when compared to its desires (it wants to run, fly, kill; instead it trips, falls and tears open), is the source of the film’s dark, dark humour. And also the source of the film’s suspense: for, will Dwight make it out alive of this world that is far more real and violent than he could have imagined? In this sense, the film’s relative slowness is also its great power: Dwight will have no easy victory, if victory he will have at all. If he is to get out of this alive, it will a long, slow and difficult trudge.
If Blue Ruin is, then, a critique of what I am terming cinematic thinking, the naturalisation of violence and the desire for revenge as a result of the myths peddled by the movies, then it is a film that is, paradoxically, deeply cinematic as a result. Perhaps all art, then, must reflect upon the conditions of its own making in certain respects.
Furthermore, the difficulty and, ultimately, the pointlessness of revenge lends to the film a political edge. For in a world in which we read about the need for payback, and in which violence is indeed a common part of our globalised existence, Blue Ruin suggests that in the real world, revenge is deeply unsatisfying, breeding only more violence that in the end ruins families rather than bringing them together.