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Dwight (Macon Blair), an introverted, wandering vagrant, has his quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

 Blue Ruin
Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is one of the best-reviewed movies of 2014 and, along with LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow initiative, apparently the best thing ever achieved via Kickstarter crowd funding. Saulnier’s feature debut, Murder Party (2007), is a somewhat sentimental look back at ‘70s and ‘80s horror that is anchored in an amusing (if not completely original) central concept. It’s a decent zero-budget short that has been extended to feature-length. It looks good on Saulnier’s CV and a pretty vicious skewering of artistic integrity to boot. Following Murder Party, Saulnier honed his skills as a cinematographer and started a Kickstarter campaign for Blue Ruin. Blue Ruin isn’t groundbreaking on a narrative level. In fact, it is significantly more simplified than the overly complicated and message-heavy Murder Party. Its high level successes come down to the pragmatic treatment of these simple themes.

Technically speaking, it seems that Saulnier’s work as cinematographer for other low-budget filmmakers has paid off, because the film is so striking, especially when it is exploring Dwight’s somber and internalized struggle via landscape photography. Images of untamed Virginian nature, in particularly, are gorgeously sparse. A advertising executive could litereally stop the film on any one of these frames and use it for an enticing promotional still. Saulnier still has some lessons to learn in regards to cinematic action, but a few jolted and over-cut scenes don’t sully the elegance of his more thoughtful sequences. The little touches go a long way to maintaining a semblance of charm in the film’s otherwise bottomless sense of dread and sorrow. For example, following a second and more elongated showdown with the villains, Dwight has the good manners to return to his sister’s house to repair a broken window and turn off the bathroom faucet, before taking to the road to continue his crusade. The reprieve is welcome and well-timed.

Like horror films, vengeance-driven thrillers tend to be at their most popular during periods of political and social strife, so it is no surprise that the decade following the September 11th terrorist attacks saw the biggest spike in revenge movies since the Vietnam War era. The best of these films respect their audience’s awareness of genre tropes and approach the concepts with a post-modern eye. The already ambiguous tones were amplified and the theme of futility permeated. But the genre tends to be strictly based around a correlative process (in every one of these films, someone will be wronged and will exert retribution). Even self-aware and referential approaches are indistinguishable in a saturated market. Some films managed to stand apart with vivid style, dark humour, and/or unique plot twists (Tarantino’s Kill Bill, David Slade’s Hard Candy, and Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, for example), while others, like Steven Kastrissios’ The Horseman, Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, and James Wan’s Death Sentence, felt oddly standardized, despite being good movies on their stand-alone merits.

 Blue Ruin
Even after hearing such wonderful things about Blue Ruin, I feared that it would be lost in the shuffle, but, now that I’ve seen it, I’m confident that Saulnier’s deft use of suspense and Macon Blair’s heartbreaking central performance alone would set it apart. Saulnier further differentiates his film by following through with the promised revenge part of his revenge thriller within the first act, with very little exposition pertaining to the question of why the protagonist is compelled to commit violent acts (all we need to know about the crusade is told to us via Dwight’s anguished face). The rest of the film springs from the fallout of a particularly awkward reprisal murder, which itself leads to a seemingly endless cycle of further bloodshed. The back-story is filled in a bit further over the next hour or so, but plotting is secondary to the melancholy of Dwight’s process. Because the futility of revenge is a permeating theme, none of the killings will elicit joyful reactions from the audience and several scenes drip with listless apprehension. This design quality may flummox many viewers, especially those hoping for a Death Wish-like thriller, where good and evil intentions are clearly stated.

Blue Ruin plays with the popular convention of the reluctant hero – a mainstay of revenge cinema. Dwight appears to do the things he does out of emotional necessity, rather than emotional closure. His mournful frown and glossy eyes imply that he’s compelled in the same way an obsessive compulsive is compelled to check the door lock 20 times. There’s no satisfaction in the act. Blair’s performance is consistently tinged by palpable fear and pain. Forget the stoic fortitude of Gary Cooper or Lee Van Cleef – Dwight openly weeps and limps his way through situations without even the false swagger of Travis Bickle. Occasionally, the sparse dialogue is a little too on-the-nose in its insistently ironic sentiment, but Saulnier spends so much time restraining himself that he earns the right to get a little theatrical here and there.

 Blue Ruin

Video


Blue Ruin was shot using Canon C300 digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 2.40:1 video. Saulnier, who acts as his own cinematographer, utilizes a diffused and often foggy look throughout the movie that would likely flatten the compositions on a standard definition release. Here, the harder details easily pierce the moody photography and do so without any notable edge enhancement effects. The darker images feature crisp highlights that keep elements from disappearing into the gloom of pure blacks and the deep-set background textures are just as tight as those in the foreground. Noise effects are minimal, almost nonexistent, but the photography rarely appears overly digital, thanks to the use of wide-angle lenses and a lack of obvious digital grading. The palette is largely organic with only hints of tinkering in some slightly orange skin tones. The hue qualities are generally consistent, but can change from shot to shot, usually depending on lighting. The warmer colours glow in the source sunlight and the natural greens and browns are sometimes breathtaking in their lush, vivid qualities, while nighttime palettes skew a little blue.

 Blue Ruin

Audio


This 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack gives Blue Ruin significant aural depth, which is important to tone and storytelling, since dialogue is at a premium. The natural environments are brimming with expertly-placed sound effects that place the audience in familiar situations with subtle and organic soundscapes. The effects accurately move throughout the speakers and change fidelity, based on camera placement (as if the camera is the audience’s subjective eyes and ears), but rarely draw unneeded attention to themselves. The violent and suspenseful scenes are more hyper-aware, including punched-up incidental effects (footsteps, the click of a light turning on, or the cocking of a weapon), aggressive gunshots and punches, and grotesquely gooey impact noises (anything that strikes a body is perfectly nasty). Dialogue is crisp and centered without losing any of the organic rawness found in the rest of the track. Brooke & Will Blair’s (seemingly Macon’s family members?) atmospheric musical score blends driving keyboard motifs with eerie ambient dissonance that fills out the stereo and surround channels during the quietly intense moments.

 Blue Ruin

Extras


  •  Commentary with writer/director Jeremy Saulnier and star Macon Blair – This is a friendly, fast movie commentary chocked-full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. The filming process was apparently pretty fluid, based on location/cast & crew availability, leading to a number of script changes and happy accidents. Saulnier and Blair’s tales of overcoming troubles and finding unexpectedly beautiful images and/or moving performances are enough to inspire amateur filmmakers to pick up a camera and start shooting. A couple of dopey jokes only add to the charm.
  • No Regrets: The Making of Blue Ruin (19:00, HD) – This making-of featurette is a bit of a sales piece with the cast and crew talking the film up to some unseen interviewer, but is also a solid version of the production process. It includes brief footage from the team’s childhood shot-on-VHS movies, behind-the-scenes footage/photographs (some images from the crew’s trip to Cannes), storyboards, and a good discussion of the film’s personal slant for the filmmakers. There’s surprisingly little overlap between the featurette and the commentary.
  • An extended opening and a deleted scene (5:00, HD), both with optional commentary
  • Camera test footage (3:50, HD)
  • Trailers for other Lionsgate releases


 Blue Ruin

Overall


I’m not sure I was as bowled over by Blue Ruin as some critics, but it certainly proves that stripped-down and humanistic revenge tales still have a place in popular cinema. I hope it got writer/director Jeremy Saulnier and actor Macon Blair the attention they deserve and that they can play with a bigger budget and broader subject matter next time around. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray release looks and sounds superb, and includes a solid commentary and making-of featurette.

 Blue Ruin

 Blue Ruin

 Blue Ruin

 Blue Ruin

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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