It’s too early to make proclamations about the best movie of the year, so let’s put it this way: Blue Ruin has a spot in the top 10 unless 10 other superlatively spectacular films come out between now and Dec. 31.
We first see Dwight (Macon Blair) from a distance, trying to relax in a bathtub. Then he hears a noise, and within moments he’s bolted from the tub and jumped out a window, one hand gripping his clothes. It turns out he’s broken into a summer rental, and the family living there came back early.
Dwight is homeless by choice. The blue ruin of the title—his beater Pontiac—is where he lives most of the time, on a beach in Delaware, where he fishes and digs food from the trash.
One morning a local sheriff tells Dwight that Will Cleland is being released from prison, and that’s when we learn why Dwight is an antisocial hermit: Will Cleland may have killed Dwight’s parents years earlier.
Dwight sets off on a short road trip to exact revenge, and he murders Will Cleland in one of the bloodiest, most ruthless and realistic on-screen killings I’ve seen in years. But Dwight is an amateur killer, and the other Clelands spot him. Dwight breaks into a local house to clean up and looks for the story on the news. That’s when he gets really scared. The Clelands don’t report the crime.
Dwight drops in on his older sister to tell him what’s happened, and he encourages her to leave to town with her two kids. It’s prescient, too; the Clelands come for revenge and Dwight has to decide whether he’s going to give up or kill the entire Cleland clan.
It sounds morose and twisted, and it’s all those things, but writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier has bigger ideas than just crafting a revenge thriller. First, Dwight is such a hapless person that each time he does something correctly, he also makes a mistake that negates his progress. Secondly, there’s a touch of mordant humor running throughout that takes the pressure off lots of the violence. Thirdly, Saulnier wants you to know: When you kill people, they’re dead. And violence begets violence. And finally, guns are gross—except when they’re cool.
One of the supporting characters, Ben (Devin Ratray, whom you may remember from Home Alone), says as much, telling Dwight after dispatching a Cleland: “That’s what bullets do.” It’s a simple statement, and it becomes clearer and clearer that Dwight hasn’t thought about the consequences of his actions.
Blue Ruin is tense, from the dramatic touches—a body thumping in a car trunk, waiting in a dark room—to the music to Blair’s performance, which is outstanding. Blair has a permanently perplexed look that suits Dwight’s character. He’s always out of his depth.
Blue Ruin moves to a perhaps inevitable conclusion, but the journey to it is so well done, it’s hard to find fault in the last five minutes. At least the car still runs.
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
With Macon Blair, Devin Ratray and Eve Plumb