4.5 / 5 stars
In the 1950s and 60s, Alfred Hitchcock perfected the story of the Everyman in trouble, the unassuming gent who finds himself in way over his head. But Hitchcock’s “regular guys” were anything but – James Stewart and Cary Grant didn’t exactly look like the fella down the block. They each had screen mega-personas that overwhelmed the characters they played and broke up the façade of the reality they played within. Fast forward to this year’s Blue Ruin, an exemplary suspense thriller led by an actor named Macon Blair. Who? An actor who carries no Hollywood weight, or baggage, for that matter. In other words, the perfect man for the everyman job. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
As a guy hell-bent on revenge, yet ill-equipped to see it through, Blair conveys a fright and shock that’s extra believable from the start, if only because we’ve never seen his face before. It’s a fairly plain face, gripped by fear and incredulity – he’s a man suddenly in a universe in which he doesn’t belong, and we buy it. It helps, of course, that Macon Blair gives a hell of a great performance.
In this urgent, no-frills vengeance tale, Blair plays Dwight, a quiet, resourceful loner who lives in his car, dumpster dives for food and breaks into houses for a quick bath. He’s the corporeal representation of Blue Ruin, extremely spare with his words and definitive with his actions.
The quiet is important, even essential here. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, who’s made a living as a cinematographer, has obviously studied the elements of suspense and surprise, and is expert at turning a steady rhythm jagged. When he does, Blue Ruin becomes more than a gripping payback story – it’s something downright scary.
In the film’s first ten minutes, Dwight receives news that inspires him to transform from a scraggly wanderer to a clean-shaven man on a mission, committed to killing a man recently released from prison. He seems far from prepared – he can barely speak, admitting to his sister he’s simply not used to it – but sheer conviction keeps him moving.
Saulnier does a fantastic job placing Dwight at the edge of a downward spiral, and then giving him a considerable push. Dwight’s first vicious act of revenge leads to another in return, and so on, giving way to a crude, brutal, brilliantly paced game of hide and seek. Even when his character is scheming for survival, Blair continues to sell Dwight’s wide-eyed naivete, constantly reminding us this is far from Dwight’s natural state of affairs.
Two films come to mind while watching Blue Ruin: Carl Franklin’s One False Move and The Coens’ No Country for Old Men. That’s some damned impressive company, and it’s appropriate: Like those two American classics, Blue Ruin has the same effective, lying-in-wait suspense, set among some very determined, savage, country folk. Like Franklin and the Coens, Saulnier knows how to set the film’s metronome, speed it up gradually and then shred the tempo for effect.
It doesn’t take long to realize that, for the majority of the characters in Blue Ruin, this ain’t gonna end well. But Saulnier doesn’t disappoint in the final meet-your-maker moments, supplying his film with blunt, bloody violence and plain, dramatic dialogue, seeing it all through right up to the end.