There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The fifty-ninth entry into this unbroken backlog is Jeremy Saulnier's meditative anti-revenge picture, Blue Ruin...
“That’s how this works, man: the one with the gun gets to tell the truth.”
On the surface, it’d be easy to sum up the appeal of Blue Ruin by simply describing it as a “revenge film”. The essential elements are all present - a desperate man, an act of vengeful violence, an ensuing feud. Yet to simply view it through said reductive prism does the movie’s acerbic statements about cyclical violence a disservice. In truth, Blue Ruin plays more like a modern Western than it does a riff on Korea’s favorite sub-genre (just look to Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy for the best examples), pitting contemporary Hatfields and McCoys against one another until there are none left standing. To wit, you might think that you’re craving some good ol’ fashioned comeuppance, but what you really need is a dose of stringent anti-gun moralism wearing the skin of a wronged white wolf.
At the center of this sparse bit of preaching is Dwight (Macon Blair), a wayward beach bum seemingly content with camping out at the Delaware shore in his beat up blue Pontiac. During the film’s hypnotically quiet opening stretch, we get a peek into Dwight’s existence as he bathes in strangers’ houses (unbeknownst to them, of course), picks through dumpsters for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and silently reads by flashlight before falling asleep in the backseat. His is a life of solitude that seems self-chosen, as if he has no more need for human interaction. It isn’t until a kindly police officer takes him down to the station and informs him that his parents’ killer is being released from prison that we see any sense of urgency flair up in Dwight’s eyes. Were it not for this bit of devastating news, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Fleet Fox looking hobo simply drifting in and out of society as he saw fit before vanishing into the beyond completely.
Cinematographer-turned-writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (Murder Party ['07]) captures both Dwight’s mundane existence and ensuing quest for retribution with a wistful eye for composition. While Dwight is cruising the boardwalk and swimming in the ocean, the sophomore filmmaker utilizes a wide frame to emphasize what a meager speck the hobo is in relation to the rest of the world. He’s a ghost, an invisible specter to most who pass. Yet once a purpose is re-injected into the man’s soul, Saulnier gets up close, capitalizing on Blair’s soft face, exploiting its every curve so that we feel the same fear, anger and hurt Dwight does as he re-enters a world of violence. Much like John Flynn focused on the austerity of William Devane’s weathered visage in his own brilliant meditation on maliciousness, Rolling Thunder ('77), Saulnier recognizes the value in his star’s countenance and lets it do most of the heavy lifting for him.
Regardless of Saulnier’s talent behind the camera - and there is a considerable amount of skill there - no amount of perfect framing would be able to make up for a lackluster central performance. Dwight is literally featured in every scene of the movie, so much so that the task put before the then relatively unknown actor (whose resume previous to this reads like a fledgling hobbyist’s) must’ve been quite the intimidating proposition. Thankfully, Blair not only delivers a solid turn, but supplies something akin to the critical cliche of “a revelation”. The performer conveys so much without saying a word, methodically allowing his eyes to fill Blue Ruin's silent stretches (of which there are many) with pages of unwritten monologue.
It should come as no surprise to anyone to discover that Saulnier and Blair are childhood best friends, betting everything on the film’s success and their creative trust in each other (financing for Blue Ruin included both a Kickstarter, and Saulnier mortgaging his home). You can feel a shorthand being employed between the two during the dramatic scenes, as they’ve collaborated to create a character in Dwight that feels whole, no matter how much his bloody rampage chips away at his soul. It’s wonderful that the film became such a critical success, as it still feels like the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this director/actor combo has in store for the cinephile populace (a fact that's reinforced by their reunion on the punk siege picture, Green Room ['15]).
Equally impressive is Devin Ratray, whose brief portrayal of Ben Gaffne - Dwight’s long-abandoned best friend - threatens to steal the entire movie away from Blair. Not to get too stuck on the comparison, but the relationship Ben and Dwight share is not too unlike the bond forged between Major Charles Rane (Devane) and Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) in Rolling Thunder. Only instead of arising out of surviving a Hanoi Pit of Hell together, Dwight and Ben emerged from another type of torturous prison transformed: a suburban Virginia high school.
Ratray brings the same quiet menace Jones did to his role in ’77, only instead of eerie stillness, Ratray undercuts his intimidating presence with a good ol’ boy sense of comedic timing. Blue Ruin is one of the rare films that treats Southern characters without condescension, acknowledging their love of guns and the outdoors while still remembering that they’re people instead of simple caricatures. Ben and Dwight’s unbreakable sense of loyalty to one another is the absolute highlight of the movie, as Ratray shows that he’s grown in leaps and bounds as an actor since playing Buzz McCallister in Home Alone ('90).
Like the very best genre exercises, Saulnier doesn’t skimp on the explosive violence. Every bullet fired causes squibs to erupt and faces to be split in half. Though none of the viscera is presented for the sake of cheap thrills. With each slug comes consequences - a perpetuation of the cycle Dwight finds himself caught up in and threatens to never end. Blue Ruin is the rare thriller that not only truly “thrills”, but utilizes each ulcer-inducing set piece in the service of the movie’s greater thesis. This is a tight, propulsive ninety minutes, hellbent on delivering its distinctly pacifist message with every puddle of spilt blood. Normally, when a creator gets on his or her soapbox, the results are often insufferable. But when Saulnier decides to clear his throat, he grabs you by yours, demanding that you listen with open ears. Spartan, melancholic, and perversely funny, Blue Ruin is not only a compelling argument against warmongering, but also a stunning example of low-budget resourcefulness.
Blue Ruin is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory.