A big hit at Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival in the US and previewed at Sundance London, this suspenseful, original and darkly comic revenge thriller set in America’s South is hugely enjoyable.
Bluebeard by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Blue Ruin is almost a movie in two parts. In the first, a raggedly bearded drifter, who sleeps rough on a beach in his battered blue Pontiac (one interpretation of the Blue Ruin of the title) and who scavenges for food in rubbish bins, receives some signficant news, a warning from a kindly local cop – one of the Cleland clan is being released from jail.
Director Jeremy Saulnier, in his second film after Murder Party, is keeping something secret from us. We don’t know what this information means, but it galvanises the inarticulate hobo into action, driving frantically cross-state, buying a gun – which doesn’t work – and a knife. He waits in his car outside the prison to see this man collected by his extended family and he follows them to the roadside café they stop at, where he finally engineers a bungled and bloody execution in the men’s room. Then, escaping, breaking into an empty house, availing himself of its facilities and taking a bath, the apparent vagrant emerges unexpectedly groomed, with self-cut short back and sides and clean shaven, in appropriated smart clothes, looking like any other middling white-collar worker. He returns to what we realise was his old life by turning up out of the blue after ten or so years at the house where, we then understand, his sister lives with her children.
From then on, the film revs into its second part and the killings take off – with a vengeance. Dwight (Macon Blair, superbly present in every scene) had, seemingly, been traumatised by the earlier murder of his parents by Cleland, for reasons we discover later causing him to disappear and live rough, and now because of the killings, these two Southern families are locked into a long-running revenge saga. When the Cleland family don’t report the murder in the men’s room – there’s nothing about it on the local news – Dwight and his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) realise that the Cleland family will be coming for revenge in person – in other words, keeping it ‘in house’. Sending his sister and her children away for safety, Dwight determines to try and outwit the Clelands himself – although he’s a pudgy incompetent when it comes to competitive violence – and fight it out to the bitter end, hiding in Sam’s house with improvised weapons as they come for the family at night. After a breathtaking Home Alone scenario in the empty house, he finally escapes alive, though not unscathed.
In desperation, he enlists the help of an old school friend Ben (a scene-stealing Devin Ratray, who played Tweedledum or Tweedledee in Nebraska), a good ol’ boy and gun fanatic with an impressive home arsenal, who tries to teach Dwight how to handle a gun effectively – but not very successfully. And from there the mild-mannered would-be assassin finds himself propelled to greater and greater acts of violence and murder as he seeks to stay alive in the face of the Cleland family’s vendetta against his family. High points include a gruesome scene of Dwight trying – unsuccessfully – to remove a crossbow bolt from his thigh. In another, he has what he thinks is a body in the boot of his car, only for it to turn out to be very volubly alive and a good deal street-smarter than him when it comes to determining who pulls the trigger first.
Trying finally to terminate the inter-family feud, he decides to take fight direct to the Clelands on their home territory rather than fearfully let them come for him, and he lies in wait from them in their remote house in the backwoods all night, only to be unnerved by the lights coming on on automatic timer and the incoming messages on the answering machine. Secrets are revealed, and the Cleland family photographs he looks at as he waits underline the very personal inter-family nature of the blood feud between them. A nice touch is the ironic casting of Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch as matriarch Kris Cleland. But we are left to wonder if perhaps the next generation, who survive in the shape of the youngest, teenage, Cleland, will turn their back on the pointless blood feud.
Dwight retains our sympathy, the more so because of his obvious unsuitability for the role he takes on for himself. The film is also a poignant comment on America’s volatile and ubiquitous gun culture. Its dark humour comes from the incongruity of the apparently clueless yet resourceful middle-class avenger versus the feral Clelands, the excessive splatterfest of the bloodbaths and the sheer smartness of the whole screenplay and editing that sustains the tension relentlessly with never any let-up. It leaves you breathless by the end – and no wonder. Despite a plot hole in the otherwise well-plotted and enticing thriller, it’s an ace calling card for its director and lead actor.
Blue Ruin premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in the Directors’ Fortnight and went on to win the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize.
Blue Ruin is released on 2nd May 2014 in the UK