for ‘Tribune’: Jeremy Saulnier’s BLUE RUIN [8/10]


We mammals bleed red, but our blood dries rust-brown. An elementary fact of biology and pigmentation, but one that has for some reason eluded the vast majority of film-makers in the half-century or so since the industry standard shifted from monochrome to colour. With few exceptions, fake blood used in movies–known in British showbiz as ‘Kensington Gore’–spills scarlet. And, like red paint, so it dries. Most directors clearly don’t care about this, or perhaps it’s something that never catches their attention. If we cut them, do they not bleed?

When a filmmaker does bother to get such minor but telling details right, they instantly stand out from the pack. Jeremy Saulnier’s outstanding, darkly comic American independent thriller Blue Ruin is the work of a man who’s clearly both lived in and paid proper attention to the real world. From very early on, it’s evident that we’re in good hands: a nicely nasty bit of injury-trauma results in a bloodshot eyeball, with blood seeping out onto the face. Horribly convincing, and just the kind of tiny touch of verisimilitude that so few directors–regardless of their budgetary resources–would think of including.

Saulnier’s technique throughout is to ground what could easily have become a plausibility-stretching, histrionic melodrama in the unassumingly quotidian. Indeed, he’s clearly fascinated by how violence actually works–the effects it has both on perpetrators and recipients, on physical, psychological and even sociological levels–and how it jaggedly interrupts the rhythms of everyday life.

His protagonist Dwight (Macon Blair) does some very violent things during the course of Blue Ruin‘s admirably brisk 95 minutes, but it’s apparent that he’s not a a “violent man” per se. When we first encounter him he’s living rough, a bearded tramp lurking on the margins of a community in coastal Virginia; slightly alarming in his unkempt appearance, but exuding a gentle reticence that’s positively child-like. The narrative gets quickly under way with Dwight being informed by a friendly cop that a certain individual is about to be released from jail. Gradually we deduce that this incarceration was connected to a tragic family incident in Dwight’s past. Dwight quietly resolves to take revenge on the convicted man, and–in the first of the film’s claustrophobic, grippingly tense set-pieces–duly does so. But as in all the best Jacobean revenge tragedies, blood leads to more blood–and, as in Webster and Middleton, the likelihood of every major character lasting until curtain-fall lies somewhere between slim and none.

This isn’t unfamiliar terrain, Saulnier’s various cinematic precedents having been duly noted by reviewers ever since the picture premiered, to much acclaim, in a Cannes sidebar last May. There’s also a distinct whiff of pulp master Jim Thompson in the way Saulnier–a Virginia native, closely attuned to the specifics of place–evokes the panicky desperations of economically and geographically marginalised lives. These are given fleshy sympathetic life via jittery, pathetically de-socialised loner Dwight–an irresistibly awkward bug-eyed presence in the great screen-lineage of Peter Lorre, Bud Cort and Paul Giamatti.

Working as his own cinematographer, Saulnier–previously responsible for 2007’s little-seen horror-comedy Murder Party–shoots the hell out of his own screenplay, essentially a simple but utterly inexorable exercise in action yielding consequence yielding action, and so on to the grimly bracing finale. The credits roll to the incongruously perky tones of R&B prodigy Little Willie John’s “No Regrets”–a sombrely apt choice: the singer died aged 30 in state penitentiary, serving an 8-to-20 stretch after drunkenly knifing a man to death in a post-gig Seattle brawl.

Neil Young
3rd May, 2014