There’s a scene in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men where the psychotic hitman Anton Chigurh lifts a few items from a pharmacy as a means of treating some gunshot wounds. He handles the situation with such calculated and emotionless affect, embarking on the procedure with cold duty. Now imagine another character from the Coens’ canon, say Larry Gopnik from A Serious Man - the Jewish suburbanite surely wouldn’t have the impetus to shoplift, let alone the wherewithal to treat a gunshot wound. Yet imagining such a circumstance certainly provokes a smile. I bring this up because Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin attempts to configure such a narrative by means of establishing a world-worn everyman as its protagonist as he sifts through a world of rural anarchy and death. There’s even a scene like the one mentioned above that’s realized better than I would have ever imagined.
Saulnier takes to the cinematographer, director, and writer’s seat for Blue Ruin. His skill as a cinematographer shows in the early scenes to the film, where the destitute Dwight (Macon Blair) roams the Virginian coastline, picking through carnival garbage and sleeping in his beat-up Pontiac. Frequently squatting around the rural township, he’s picked up by the police. But the reason for the pickup isn’t for any particular criminal activity: he’s advised by an officer that the man who murdered his parents is being released from prison. The rage builds inside Dwight as he leaves the coastline to enact vengeance - and does so to clumsy effect. From the strains of attempting to purchase a gun to the bloody murder that occurs in the opening fifteen minutes, Blue Ruin attempts to strip away any sense of grandeur when it comes to an everyman seeking revenge.
Structurally, Blue Ruin functions as a series of modest setpieces perpetuated by how vengeance functions in a cyclical and perpetual state. A household siege serves as the tightest display of this thesis, where Dwight maneuvers his way out of his sister’s home while attempting to evade intruders. Now made a target by the family of the man he murdered, Dwight attempts to utilize his cunning to diffuse the situation. He’s the unlikeliest of heroes and unfortunately, it’s a fact that Saulnier relies on a bit too heavily for comic and dramatic effect. Saulnier’s style mistakes minimalism for mystery and eventually the subdued pacing of the picture feels lethargic, particularly as the narrative often jarringly intrudes on where the film goes. Efforts are too forcefully made to establish the extraordinary circumstance that Dwight embarks upon and arguably Saulnier is incapable of putting a cap on what was initially so tightly wound. Still, Saulnier’s efforts compose a generally sturdy Frankenstein-esque conglomeration of influences. It’s not quite often that you’re reminded of director’s like John Boorman, the Coens, Michael Mann, and Sam Peckinpah all within a single scene.