Friday, 29 August 2014

On DVD: "Blue Ruin"

The filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier's debut Murder Party was a larky horror-comedy that had its moments - I retain a fondness for one insert of an artist's diary, which read "NIHILISM" on one page and "don't forget to tape CSI: Miami" on the other - but was chiefly another of those glib post-Tarantino indulgences, hellbent on treating its violence as slaphappy, anything-goes sport. Saulnier has gone away for a few years, had a think about the kind of filmmaker he wants to be, doubtless grown up a little, and now returns with the Sundance SensationBlue Ruin: a pared-back thriller that revolves around a man who's had everything taken away from him, and chosen violence as a project with which to fill the emptiness.

Those of us sitting in the dark watching will be aware this may not be the most considered path, yet from the very off, it's clear the man in question is in a state of extreme physical and emotional dishevelment. Dwight (Macon Blair) is a bearded bum who, after some initially undisclosed trauma, has taken to living out of his rustbucket Pontiac, permanently parked in the dunes of a beach somewhere in the Midwest. Upon learning that the individual responsible for his plight is being released from prison in Virginia, Dwight exacts an extreme form of revenge - and if this action proves or reveals anything in particular, it's that our protagonist has been holding in his rage like air: as soon as he lets it out, his trajectory becomes as unpredictable, as erratic, as a suddenly untethered balloon.

This is Saulnier's most daring and effective gambit second time around: to track the passage of a character who is defined almost entirely by his actions (as Dwight himself mumbles, "I don't talk much these days"), yet thinks nothing of the consequences. After taking his vengeance, Dwight ricochets onto the well-tended front lawn of his well-to-do sister (Amy Hargreaves), and a tentative process of reassimilation begins. Yet no sooner has he shown up than she leaves, and somehow putting a roof over Dwight's head makes him even twitchier and more compelling to watch - not least as he's sane enough to realise he's left a thick trail of blood and vapour behind him.

Such a determinedly lean venture needs a substantial leading man to bulk it out, and this Blue Ruin has in the schlubby, sad-faced Blair, a midpoint between Kevin Corrigan and Peter Lorre. No-one working out of Hollywood would allow such an unprepossessing type to topline a film even half this tense, but Saulnier takes the risk, and is rewarded for so doing: Blair's responses are still sufficiently raw to convince as both a guy trying to clean up his mess, and one might well have got into such a mess in the first place. There are plot points that don't quite play: within the gated community the Hargreaves character calls home, I think the sudden appearance of marauding men toting crossbows and shotguns would attract rather more attention than it does here, and given the extent of Dwight's carnage, it feels something of a (possibly budget-related) cheat to keep the cops out of the picture altogether.

Yet it could well be argued that Saulnier is doing much of the investigative legwork himself. Blue Ruin is newly assured around this violence: it's a film on violence as a legacy, a panicky first response, a desperate last resort, and a signifier of something innately American (key line of dialogue: "He who holds the gun gets to tell the truth"), even as it leaves some vomiting at the roadside and others with half their faces blown to smithereens. After the one-sided Murder Party, action is here wedded to consequence, misguided cause to bloody effect. As one of Dwight's brothers-in-arms puts it, in a line as blunt and as truthful as anything else here, "That's what bullets do."

Blue Ruin is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Channel 4 from September 8th.

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