Unless you are intimately involved in a movie’s production, it can be virtually impossible to determine where the writer’s role ends and the director’s begins, or how much credit/blame to assign to the actor or the cinematographer. One of the reasons the auteur theory gained such credibility in the past half century is that it simplified this analysis by assigning the director responsibility for everything. In the current market, that is often an accurate paradigm. Sometimes, it is not. In Jeremy Saulnier’s new thriller Blue Ruin, the issue becomes somewhat less debatable. Since Saulnier wrote, directed, and photographed the movie, we can assume he is primarily responsible for the many strengths, and occasional weaknesses, of Blue Ruin.
In terms of genre, it is a revenge thriller, and you don’t have to be a student of film to recognise that this is very popular subject matter that has been examined on screen too many times to count. Saulnier does not exactly break any new ground here, but he makes several decisions as a storyteller that really help the movie. The plot concerns Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), a young homeless man whose life was overturned by the murder of his parents when he was younger. He has drifted away from his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), who seems to have weathered the turmoil and is now living a quiet suburban life with her own young daughters. When the movie begins, Dwight discovers that the man who killed his parents is being released from prison. Dwight sets out to kill him.
I will not give away the twists that shape the plot. They are solid, though not spectacular. There are surprises ahead, but this is a reasonably straight story. It doesn’t turn out that Dwight and the killer are one in the same, or that his parents aren’t dead, or that Keyser Soze is behind it all. But within the confines of the simple set-up Saulnier makes at least three very smart decisions.
First, he does not use flashback. This must have been a consideration as he was preparing the story. Dwight and Sam are forever affected by something that happened to them when they were young. We are led to believe that the murder of their parents was bloody and as such, it probably would have photographed well. The recent movie Oculus (2013) is a supernatural horror version of the same premise in which an evil mirror causes the death of a young brother and sister’s parents, and as adults, the children set out to destroy said mirror. In that movie, writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan, builds flashbacks into the fabric of the plot-line. The result is pretty cool and slick, but it has the effect of taking emphasis off the present tense story line. Saulnier never permits us to escape into the past, which, though potentially disturbing, is still the past. I am not one of those Robert McKee fanatics who decries all use of flashback, but I do think storytellers need to realise that stories are not about what happened in the past. They are best when they are about what is happening in the present. Saulnier’s decision allows our focus to remain where it should be.
His second strong decision involves Sam and her daughters. As things escalate between Dwight and the killer’s family (the Clelands), Sam and her children may be sucked into the violence. Placing children at risk is an old dramatic chestnut, and though it has obvious visceral impact, it can also seem very gratuitous. If not carefully controlled, it has the effect of removing all nuance from the story, reducing the characters to very fundamental symbols of good and evil. Saulnier takes care of this quickly and simply. He physically removes the sister and the children from the story. They remain as a presence – as a marker of the stakes for which Dwight is playing – but we do not see them. This again allows us to focus on Dwight and his mental and physical struggles. In Gary Felder’s recent thriller Homefront (2013), a single dad with a young daughter runs afoul of similarly violent people and the daughter remains in the story in a much larger way. Her presence runs the risk of overwhelming the rest of the thriller. At this point, I will not refight my battle over another recent movie, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, which I consider to be the best movie I saw in 2013. Villeneuve has a similar decision to make in Prisoners, and suffice to say that he comes much closer to Saulnier’s side than to Felder’s, and I obviously think his movie is much better for it.
Finally, Saulnier makes the decision to emphasise Dwight’s weaknesses, both physical and mental. Dwight is far removed from the typical revenge thriller hero. He is not Jason Statham in Homefront, or any version of Charles Bronson or Steven Seagal. Macon Blair, who plays Dwight, has a manner akin to Philip Seymour Hoffman – a doughy, halting quality that feels a lot closer to what is real than does the standard movie fantasy vigilante. I don’t deny the power of a fantasy vigilante – Choi Min-sik’s hero in Park Chan-wok’s Oldboy (2003) is almost supernaturally destructive and it fits beautifully, in part because the entire premise of Oldboy is more predicated on fantasy than are most revenge thrillers. But in this realistically grounded narrative, a less competent Dwight works far better. We feel just how difficult and seemingly hopeless his endeavour will be. Because he is a regular guy, and arguably somewhat diminished by his circumstances, Saulnier does not have to resort to extravagant plot devices to make his struggle seem large enough to support a feature film.
These fundamental decisions are crucial in making Blue Ruin as good as it is, but it is not a masterpiece. Saulnier makes several other decisions that I find less successful. He dwells in some detail on the physical unpleasantness of Dwight’s situation. Blood and vomit and garbage figure prominently on screen, and though I understand the rationale for portraying this, I think he goes a little bit too far. Obviously, that is a subjective matter. And I’m afraid that my own limitations as a critic prevent me from determining whether the decision to equip one of the bad guys with a crossbow (instead of the shotguns most everyone else favours) is quirky cool or just plain silly. Without question, the worst decision he makes comes in the depiction of the Cleland family. Though he hints at more nuance, particularly in a good scene between Dwight and Teddy Cleland (Kevin Kolack), the Clelands are basically portrayed as run-of-the-mill snarling villains. This ties into a bigger problem, which is most likely not based on any decision-making, but rather due to the difficulty in creating such stories at a high level. Dwight is so central to the movie that he essentially leaves no room for any other character to emerge. None of the Clelands resonate (the youngest of their clan is supposed to, but the character just isn’t executed very well), nor does Dwight’s sister Sam or his friend, Ben. They are not necessarily bad characters, and their acting (especially Devin Ratray as Ben) is mostly engaging. But Saulnier has not found a way to give any of the other characters scenes and moments in which they can reveal themselves or evolve. They are all present to assist in Dwight’s journey, and not as characters in their own rights. In a sense, this is a key difference between Blue Ruin and Prisoners. Villeneuve finds a way to offer a range of intriguing characters and his story is fuller and more nuanced as a result.
Still, at 37, Saulnier has made a very strong and smart thriller. It is just his second feature – he has worked primarily as a cinematographer to this point – and the storytelling instincts on display in Blue Ruin promise much more in the future.