Sundance London: Blue Ruin review

These days, the label ‘Revenge thriller’ provokes a lot of eye rolling. This is largely down to the genre’s ubiquity, particularly amongst low-budget first or second films. It’s become a go-to form for filmmakers looking for something easy or saleable.

And I must confess, this is why I missed Blue Ruin at Cannes last year. I saw the words ‘Revenge thriller’ and opted instead to see something else, a film that I considered to have more potential based only on the scant published information.

But Blue Ruin isn’t any kind of run-of-the-mill revenge thriller. Far from it. It’s an intricately structured, dark and brooding piece that often subverts expectations in ways that effectively heighten suspense.

Dwight (Macon Blair) is a bum living out of his car. He’s unshaven and has very clearly hit rock bottom. As the film begins, a police officer comes to inform him of the release from prison of a man convicted of killing some of Dwight’s loved ones.

Diverted completely by this new information, Dwight begins to methodically prepare for a confrontation with the man. And they do come face to face, in a particularly tense and violent scene. This is the entire narrative arc of many revenge films, but in Blue Ruin it’s just the set-up, unfolding across only the first twenty minutes or so.

At this point, there’s a question raised about whether or not Dwight has targeted the right man. Meanwhile, the film develops something of a cat and mouse chase between the convicted man’s family and Dwight, who now has to take moves to protect his sister and her children.

Dwight does not have a ‘special set of skills,’ or even the correct tools to kill someone, get away with it and protect himself and others. He relies on being resourceful, but at times he is something of a klutz and is shown to have many weaknesses. All of this only helps make his character compelling, aided by Blair’s wide-eyed and engaging performance.

We follow Dwight at every turn, but not with the bloodthirsty desire for revenger that typies the genre. Instead the audience is moved to develop a sympathetic desire for things to go ‘right’ for the character.

As Blue Ruin builds to a climax there’s a stakeout scene which, in another wonderful subversion of the norm, is very much about the waiting. The scenes almost border on dull, as Dwight waits and waits. But this is exactly the kind of thing that we don’t normally see and the film is made both more intriguing and engaging as a result. We have time, as does Dwight, to think about what he  his actions and their implications.

Director Jeremy Saulnier makes great use of his ‘scope framing, turning every corner of the frame into the possible launching place of surprise for both Dwight and the audience. The moody score from Brooke and Will Blair underwrites the measured and intelligent understanding of visual suspense.

When Dwight is finally brought to a hard decision in the film’s closing minutes, the film’s title comes into focus. Blue Ruin, which is never referred to explicitly in the film, is a reference to complete desolation. This becomes an apt description of what the themes, of cycles of revenge and violence and the sadness they bring with them.

Blue Ruin is filled with clear purpose and made with a great deal of filmmaking skill. I’m glad I finally caught up with it and implore you not to the same mistake I did at Cannes last year.

Blue Ruin is released in UK cinemas on the 2nd of May and is already available on VOD and in limited theatres in the US.