I loved revenge movies in high school. Man On Fire, Léon: The Professional, Oldboy. I suspect a lot of budding male movie nerds go through a phase of exclusively seeking out “intense” movies about solitary men doing some dirty business, even if they’re not consciously aware that that’s what they’re looking for. Admit it, film school brethren: what was your favorite movie in Film Analysis 101? Bicycle Thieves, or Le Samouraï? I thought so.
Blue Ruin is for you if you were once that angsty ball of puberty, but are now a little older and like things to be subtler (i.e. only five or six people die/sustain serious injuries). It’s a bare-essentials genre film that makes its surprises count, so if it already sounds like your thing, skip the rest of my review and go watch it on Netflix.
Dwight Evans is a homeless guy who finds out that the man convicted of murdering his parents, Wade Cleland, is getting released from prison on a plea deal. He tracks him down and kills him. The other Clelands find out Dwight did it and go after him and his sister. The rest of the movie is Dwight dealing with the fallout.
The classic Death-Wish-style revenge pic is always about male fantasy, even if some try to pull an “eye-for-an-eye-makes-the-whole-world-blind” ending out of a hat. It’s all about middle-class average Joes unleashing their inner Liam Neesons and Doing What’s Necessary when someone else fucks with their property. A pudgy accountant becomes someone who can disembowel five skinheads with nothing but a couple of two-by-fours and some yarn from his dead wife’s knitting kit.
That’s not the case here. What makes Blue Ruin stand out from other films of its type is Dwight’s vulnerability. Macon Blair plays him as an anti-Charles Bronson, full of pain but weirdly lacking in hostility; what was once rage has scabbed over into a weary obsession. He’s killing the Clelands not because of righteous anger or a deeply felt sense of duty to his family, but because his trauma has made going through the motions of that sense of duty the only thing he’s capable of.
Since he’s the main character, you know he can’t die until the credits roll, but instead of relishing the violence you spend most of the movie agonizing over how incompetent he is. All revenge movies have the first kill scene where the main character hides in a closet with his gun/knife/hammer, thinking can I do it? as his sweaty palm fumbles the hilt—that’s Dwight for the whole runtime. He makes stupid mistakes. The Clelands make stupid mistakes. Everybody is miserable, nobody has any perspective when it would count. The greatness of Blue Ruin lies in taking a mythically old story—two families trying to kill each other—and making all participants behave like real people: awkward, cowardly, stupid, pathetic.
So yeah, it’s a bitter pill. It’s also satisfying as a revenge movie, somehow. As the endgame nears, it can be hard to tell whether it wants to be a genre movie or an anti-genre movie, but by the time it wraps up Blue Ruin will have convinced you that the theme of vengeance still has plenty of life left.
Watch it when you’re already in a bad mood.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510