There's no doubt about it: 2014 has been a good year for Southern Gothic grindhouse neo-noirs about ordinary men whose lives are upturned by seeking revenge. Shortly before the release of Jim Mickle's Cold in July—a quirky Texas-set tale of awkward revenge (based on Joe. R. Lansdale's novel)—came Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin, a quirky Virginia-set tale of awkward revenge, written (and photographed) by the director. Is there something in the air at the moment? Perhaps the general sense of dispossession in a time of income inequality creates a welcoming environment for films about everyday Americans taking righteous action. Happily, both Mickle and Saulnier show more interest in the unfulfilling, tragic wages of revenge than fulfilled fantasies of power uncomplicatedly reasserted.
The film's opening scenes introduce us to a scraggly scavenger living out of his car in coastal Delaware. This, we learn, is Dwight (Macon Blair), a man who has suffered a devastating loss in the murder of a family member. Willing neither to kill himself nor to go on living as he once did, Dwight passes his days dumpster diving, with an occasional fumbling suburban break-in to avail himself of a bathtub. But one day, he's picked up by a sympathetic cop, who feels obligated to break some news to him gently: the murderer who ruined Dwight's life has had his conviction overturned on a technicality, and is soon to rejoin society. Now with his own reason to step back into society, but no impetus to follow its rules, Dwight sets his whole being on murderous revenge, a journey that takes him into Virginia, his past, and his own personal hell.
Perhaps Blue Ruin's greatest strength and weakness reside in the development of character. Saulnier's sensitive direction and minimalist dialogue create a horrifying intimacy with the protagonist, who is relatably inequipped for violence and yet an unleashed id that is also terrifyingly recognizable as the shadow potential within so many of us. Dwight is a man established almost entirely through his choices of action, which is in its own way powerfully and bluntly effective. And yet it's a bit difficult to swallow—especially after seeing him cleaned up back in suburbia—that a man of his position would have sunk into the circumstances under which we met him. More care given to reconciling these two Dwights might have violated the film's clean narrative, but also made it easier to accept as reality rather than a "just go with it" conception.
Ultimately, Blue Ruin succeeds best as an exercise in style (achieved on a low, Kickstarter-goosed indie-film budget), with equally patient renderings of Dwight's thought processes and scenes of suspense in which he attempts a task for which he is demonstrably unprepared by his life experience. The ways in which Dwight's friends and family have him pegged hint at deeper themes. "I'd forgive you if you were crazy," says his beleaguered sister (Amy Hargreaves). "But you're not. You're weak." Dwight's high-school friend, Iraq War veteran Ben (Devin Ratray) may not say it in so many words, but he clearly recognizes the same weakness and, in a violent but oddly touching way, helps Dwight to compensate for that weaknesses. Strong acting all around by a cast of non-household names (except perhaps Eve "Jan Brady" Plumb as one of the McCoys to Dwight's Hatfield)—who make the most of small but substantial supporting roles—helps to make Blue Ruin a hauntingly memorable, even thoughtful shoot-'em-up.
Anchor Bay delivers a fine digital-to-digital transfer of Jeremy Saulnier's cinematography. The natural, inviting, soft-lit imagery invariably feels film-like, with subtle color and palpable texture and depth. Detail is excellent, and contrast nicely resolved for an all-around perfect picture. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack likewise maximizes the source material. The naturalistic dialogue can on rare occasions (indeed, the dialogue itself is rare) be a challenge, but it's no fault of the audio presentation here, which ideally recreates the theatrical experience (and the disc is subtitled if you ever miss a beat). Music has a nice fullness to it (especially when Little Willie John's "No Regrets" kicks in).
Radius-TWC has supplied some excellent bonus features for this release, beginning with an audio commentary by writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier and star Macon Blair. The longtime friends give a sense of their personal dynamic while providing some details about the film's inception and shoot (and throwing back a few beers).
"No Regrets: The Making of Blue Ruin" (18:56, HD) collects a fairly definitive set of cast-and-crew interviews, with a bit of behind-the-scenes footage and even some clips from taped auditions and (most entertainingly) Saulnier and Blair's childhood crime movies. As behind-the-scenes featurettes go, this is awfully interesting, even more so due to the unknown quality of its up-and-coming participants.
Two "Deleted Scenes" (4:59, HD) come with optional commentary by Saulnier and Blair, and rounding out the disc is a July 2012 "Camera Test" (3:52, HD).
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer