Revenge isn't merely messy in Blue Ruin. It is a clumsy, poorly coordinated, obsessive, wrongheaded bit of pathos. Its appeal, writer and director Jeremy Saulnier, seems to be saying is among the most delusional of fantasies we indulge in at the theater -- right up there with the notion of a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider turning in to a crimefighting superhero.
Quentin Tarantino has spent the last decade-plus making approximately half of this point. Revenge fantasies are absurd. But his revenge fantasies are absurd fun, at least if you're the type of person that sees the fun in splurting blood. There are apparently a lot of us who do.
Saulnier makes an altogether different point about the revenge fantasy by twisting it into a revenge reality. The thrust: that revenge can be at least as idiotic as amusing.
He makes his point with Dwight, the drifting, near-middle-aged son of parents who were murdered that springs into action when the man convicted of their killings is freed from prison. Dwight has been so affected by his parents' murder that he lives in blue Pontiac Bonneville parked by the beach. He's such a mess that as the film opens he is slinking out of a stranger's house midway through a much-needed bath. Back to the beach he scurries, awaiting the kind of dark purpose that only the release of his parents' killer can seem to provide.
When that finally happens, Dwight is off from the beach to rural Virginia, where he stalks and then coolly stabs to death the man he believes killed his parents as he finishes up a mundane trip to the bathroom. The man's family is just a few feet away, directly outside the bathroom and celebrating his release. It takes them mere minutes to figure out what has happened, and just a few moments longer to fly in to a collective rage that mirrors the one Dwight has carried all these years.
It is only then that Saulnier's wry subversiveness begins to emerge. As Dwight makes his escape, he stumbles out in to the parking lot and slashes the tires of the boxy white limo the Cleland family is likely to use to chase him down. It's the type of maneuver that The Bride from Kill Bill or Liam Neeson in, um, everything for the last decade would pull off with ease. Dwight is no Liam Neeson. He opens up a gaping, gushing wound on his hand that leaves him dazed (and might leave you feeling light-headed as well). Then, unable to start his Bonneville, he ends up having to use the limo -- flat tires and all -- as his getaway car.
Dwight is played by Macon Blair, a relative unknown who has the gift of looking like a revenge-crazed badass with an unkempt beard and long hair and a stiff bank teller when he's clean-shaven. Saulnier takes full advantage of this peculiar "talent" by giving him the bank-teller look for much of the rest of the film. Blair's plain look and the khakis and collared shirt lended to him by his sister make it all the more absurd as Dwight and the Clelands hurtle toward a final showdown that will lay their blood feud to rest.
In making Dwight and the Clelands some mixture of the dimwitted Hatfields and the McCoys and/or the worst spies/contract killers in movie history, Saulnier seems to go beyond decrying revenge and right into mockery. Even his use of blue -- the color of revenge in this film -- has to be tongue in cheek. There's his car and the ocean and his blue shirt and his blue hospital gown and the blue sheet that holds a small arsenal of weaponry and the blue bug zapper in his sister's yard. There's so much blue that it's hard to believe Saulnier would be that heavy-handed accidentally.
In my favorite scene, Dwight is holding one of the Cleland clan at gunpoint in the trunk of his rusted-out car. The man in the trunk tries to tell Dwight that his brother -- the man Dwight killed at the beginning of the film -- didn't actually murder his father -- that he instead took the fall for his own father so that the head of the Cleland family wouldn't have to die in prison.
Dwight, hobbled by a crossbow bolt in his leg and on edge in general, dismisses the claim.
"That's how this works," replies his prisoner, suddenly supplicant. "The one with the gun gets to tell the truth."
Maybe that's so in most other tales of vengeance, but not in Saulnier's.