Film Review: Blue Ruin

An effective regional crime drama in the key of Jeff Nichols, but lacking his emotional and thematic complexity.

Hey, you know what's a great movie? Shotgun Stories, Jeff Nichols' terrifically assured 2007 directorial debut. Set in small-town Arkansas, the film chronicles a long-simmering family feud that finally boils over into violence, visiting tragic consequences upon the two clans involved. Beyond its confidently paced narrative and strong ensemble cast (led by Nichols' regular collaborator, Michael Shannon), Shotgun Stories boasts a vivid sense of place, offering up a vision of the modern-day South that's nonetheless plagued by old ghosts. And even as Nichols' budgets and prestige have expanded with subsequent features (including 2011's critical darling Take Shelter and 2013's art-house hit Mud), he's retained the ability to capture the distinct tone and tenor of a particular location, treating it as an essential ingredient in the film and not just a backdrop.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that other young filmmakers could do worse than to use Jeff Nicholas and Shotgun Stories as a model for their own careers, and that's precisely what Jeremy Saulnier has done with his sophomore feature, Blue Ruin, another regional crime picture that's rooted in familial crisis. In this case, the specific region is rural Virginia, well removed from the more progressive part of the state that borders Maryland and Washington, D.C. It's here that bedraggled drifter Dwight (Macon Blair) turns up, having made the trip south from Delaware in his beat-up jalopy, the "blue ruin" of the title. He's in town to watch the man who killed his parents—a crime that happened when he was a child and set him on the path to becoming the vagabond he is today—walk free after two decades behind bars. What he's going to do when he sees this specter from his past isn't something he's quite figured out yet, but the knife he's hiding in his pocket suggests that forgiveness and reconciliation aren't on the agenda.

Sure enough, it isn't long before the killer's blood is splashed all over the floor of a dive restaurant's men's room and Dwight is in the process of making an exceedingly clumsy getaway, one that makes his identity plain as day to his victim's equally vengeful relatives. At first, he plays defense, seeking refuge with his sister and then a childhood friend, hiding out from the hunters on his tail. But after learning a key piece of information that he wasn't privy to as a minor, Dwight decides to confront the other family on their home turf, an encounter that drags their messy shared history out into the light. And, once again, it's not exactly a therapeutic experience.

A cinematographer as well as a director, Saulnier has previously lensed such low-budget features as Putty Hill and Septien (he's also served as his own DP on his two features), both of which share Blue Ruin's careful attention to the setting the characters inhabit. His particular directorial style is more functional, less impressionistic, than, say, the rural tone poems of Terrence Malick or David Gordon Green, though; in those films—and even in some of Nichols' work (most notably Take Shelter, which imagines an environmental apocalypse that's more nightmarish than Noah's version of the Great Flood)—there's a pronounced respect and reverie of nature, which permits the implicit suggestion that our petty personal dramas are dwarfed by larger (though not necessarily theistic) forces. The wounded souls in Blue Ruin aren't as awed in the face of the natural world; Dwight in particular is just endeavoring to get by, using what's around him to sustain his survival.

That tactile connection between this man and his environment is the most effective element of Blue Ruin, which otherwise lacks some of the narrative grace and thematic resonance that Nichols brought to Shotgun Stories. Storytelling isn't Saulnier's forte, as evidenced by the clumsy way he withholds so much information early on before dumping it on top of later scenes, bogging them down in exposition masked as revelation. But his evocation of this setting is consistently well-realized, with the drab landscape complementing and even commenting on the characters' ruined lives. It's the rare revenge movie that finds the banality—rather than the satisfaction or the horror—in vengeance.

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