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A darkly comic send-up of revenge movies and an ambiguously intended stirring-of-the-pot on the topic of gun obsession in America, Blue Ruin is a talented but sophomoric low-budgeter that straddles the divide between genre thriller and art piece with mixed results. The offbeat suspense and violence elements and a certain embedded hipster quotient will generate some post-Cannes festival attention and minor specialized release in the U.S. and select other territories.
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier previously directed the 2007 comic horror item Murder Party and was cinematographer on Matthew Porterfield’s three features. Shooting mostly in his native Virginia, he here underlines the basic absurdity of protracted vendettas, Southern-style, first by withholding full information about who’s out to get whom and why, then by dragging out the proceedings to the point where it’s hard even for the participants to remember why they feel the need to keep killing one another.
The intriguing title refers specifically to the rusty old Pontiac sedan that, when first seen, is home to Dwight (Macon Blair), a scraggly-bearded, disheveled, wary-eyed, thirtysomething homeless man who collects plastic bottles by the beach. But unwelcome news of the release of a man imprisoned for a double murder since 1993 spurs the layabout into panicky action; he steals a pickup and a gun, rather easily surprises and kills the former jailbird, then hides out in a suburban house belonging to an unidentified relative, Sam (Amy Hargreaves) to await the retaliation he’s sure will come.
And, indeed, it does, with gruesome and cringingly comic results. Dwight is no professional, but just as much of a bumbler and loser as he first appeared to be. After shaving and adopting a straight preppy look, he ends up with one assailant in his car trunk and an arrow in his thigh but less certain of who actually murdered his parents 20 years earlier. The extraction of the arrow is milked for all the excruciating comic mileage Saulnier can muster.
Because the tit-for-tat killings must go on, Dwight tracks down longtime friend Ben (a very fine Devin Ratray, Buzz in the Home Alone films, upcoming in Nebraska), a beefy good ol’ boy who equips and trains him with a rifle. One of the edgiest and cuttingly funny scenes emerges from Dwight finally letting his captive out of his trunk at gunpoint, resulting in an exchange that both further muddies and perpetuates the family feud that just can’t be left alone. One more big stand-off leading to a bloodbath is necessary before the whole nasty business can be put to rest.
Shooting in very well composed widescreen images and well aware how to stage scenes to milk suspense and/or ambiguity, Saulnier generates odd undercurrents, first by centering the tale on such a weird, maladroit and very likely misguided protagonist and, second, by sending such mixed signals via his obvious fascination with guns. The way they are brandished, particularly by Ben, will set gun lovers to licking their chops, but there is a simultaneous queasiness to these scenes that will lead others to conclude that the film is some sort of critique of the gun culture, however imprecise and vaguely intentioned. There’s a definite have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too aspect to the handling of this issue that leaves a muddled impression.
However, the film is hardly dull and certainly has its moments, a tribute to Saulnier’s fundamental filmmaking acumen as well as to the oddness of Blair’s character and performance. He’s not a villain but nor is there anything likable about this clumsy, apprehensive guy, a social misfit who may still be traumatized by the awful crime against his family but allows himself to remain entirely defined by it.
The score by Brooke and Will Blair and a complex sound mix add to the film’s off-kilter tension, although some of the ambient noises were too intrusively loud as experienced at the Cannes premiere.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production: Filmscience, Neighborhood Watch
Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidne Anderson
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Screenwriter: Jeremy Saulnier
Producers: Anish Savjani, Richard Peete, Vincent Savino
Executive producers: Skei Saulnier, Macon Blair, Rosemary Edwards, Eileen McGrath, Karen Saulnier
Director of photography: Jeremy Saulnier
Production designer: Kaet McAnneny
Costume designer: Brooke Bennett
Editor: Julia Bloch
Music: Brooke Blaire, Will Blair
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