Revenge films have the unfortunate reputation of being simplistic in their outlook yet, looking at the sub-genre’s past and present condition, it shows itself to be perhaps the most intelligent form of critical questioning of the role of violence in media and in real life. This rather strange assumption of the sub-genre is even more odd when considering how intelligent, spellbinding and provocative the films that began this subset of crime and drama films started. From the medieval revenge of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), the dreamlike visions of violence of Only God Forgives (2013), to the pulpy journey provided for in Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollar’s More (1965), the revenge film has often been far more intelligent than its base pleasures and draws suggest.
Here enters the most recent of these revenge film, Jeremy Sauliner’s Blue Ruin; a film that slots comfortably into the this collection of quality, sparse dramas that seek ultimately to show the timeless consequences of extreme violence. Interestingly, even the title of Blue Ruin shares the film’s sense of inner meanings, potentially being equally a title referencing the falling apart of our protagonist’s life (hinting that before the tragedy he was a regular blue collar worker) and his battered, blue car that he lives and drives around in.
Blue Ruin follows the disgruntled, bearded Dwight (Macon Blair) as he exacts revenge on the family who killed his parents. His disorientation leads him to first kill the man he believes responsible for his parent’s death before going on the run, avoiding and fighting off the other family members who seek to hunt him down. This synopsis does little justice for the film which has a No Country for Old Men (2007)style of philosophy behind its outbursts of savage, almost primitive violence. Like so many revenge films, the journey is one that is both existential and physical as Dwight revisits his sister’s house before truly running to more open, eerie American vistas. The idea of the broken family haunts many of the characters.
When first learning about the release of the murderer, the character is so dazed and distant that he seems almost hypnotized by the desire for revenge, sporting blank eyes and a Manson-esque beard. He wanders around preparing for the kill but it is in this instant that one of the more general scenarios comes as a real shock. His first thought is to fix his car up, remove its battery from the rag he’s keeping it in and find a gun. Of course, the shock comes from the idea that the first place to try and find a gun is to look in people’s car glove compartments; an idea as surreal as it is alien to non-Americans. And yet it’s an apt norm for a film whose violence is as casual as it is unexpected.
Though the violence is spread out, when it rears up the sense of shock is astounding. The violence almost stalks and creates the atmosphere of the film, similarly to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976); a film about an equally distanced loner whose sparks of violence come to define his future as well as his past. It reminds of the films of Ben Wheatley too: the sense that something darkly humorous is followed by a deeply unsettling shock, often to do with firearms related injuries and actions in this case. This sense that extreme violence can rear up at any point is where the tension lies, especially as the empathy builds for the quiet Dwight who appears to only go along with the violence because he fears for the safety of his surviving family.
What Blue Ruin does go to great lengths to show is that behind each bullet shot, there is (and always has been) a human element that is taken apart. When Dwight finally makes his way back to the enemy family’s household, his exploring of the house and the items within it reveal the normal life of the family; a seemingly impossible normalness that humanises a group of people who would typically never be given the time in a crime film to be shown to be thinking, potentially loving people. This comes as especially refreshing after Dwight’s reaction to one of the family having their face blown off; the image being so shocking to the character that he can’t initially comprehend moving the body.
In the aftermath, Blue Ruin is shown to be a film that is deeply knowledgably about the power of violence and death. While it does have moments of lightness, it comes off as being typical of the sub-genre in its dark, morbid rawness while showcasing its strongest and most affecting traits. Dwight might be construed as a troubled individual but his domino-like reactions hint that imbalances of injustice have no choice but to naturally reassert some form of moral weight, as if it is some sentient being that is uncaring about the chaos it must potentially unleash to reset the scales.
Blue Ruin is out now in cinemas.