[Editor’s Note: This review was originally written and posted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.]
Revenge is a dish best served with a knife, a crossbow and semi-automatic rifles in Jeremy Saulnier’s bloody and brilliant sophomore feature, Blue Ruin.
When Blue Ruin opens, a drifter named Dwight (Mason Blair) is coasting through life on a beach. He’s dirty, living on a steady diet of trashcan food, and his face looks as if it’s never felt a clean shave. He breaks into houses just to take a bath, however his presence shows he’s not a bad or harmful man — he’s just trying to survive. Things aren’t so bad, this bum has built a home and life for himself at a place where things are simple and uncomplicated.
While sleeping in his rusty, old and beaten-up blue Bonneville, Dwight gets a surprise visit from the local sheriff (who seems to know him really well). She tells him that a man from his past has just been released from prison, and from the deer in headlights look on his face, we know this isn’t a man Dwight wants to exchange presents with on Christmas. And as his eyes turn from scared to sad to pain to anger, he sticks a sharp knife five inches deep into his enemies’ skull (not a spoiler). It quickly becomes clear that these two won’t be playing Go Fish together anytime soon, either. During the scuffle, Dwight abandons his car, which is registered to his sister’s house, at the crime scene. Things, as they say, don’t go exactly as planned, and Dwight’s fiery rampage of revenge has only just begun.
What makes Dwight the perfect, unconventional anti-hero is the ambitious size of his bite — he’s short, skinny, has never held a gun in his life, and would probably apologize to a butterfly if he hurt its feelings. Blair completely embodies Dwight and brings him to life with subtle, but fierce, intensity. During a scene in which he’s stuck in a house, outnumbered and outgunned, you can feel Dwight’s anxiety and anger vibrate through him — boom, acting! As his violent tale of revenge takes a dramatic — and at times, comedic — turn, Blair’s portrayal of Dwight displays a level of commitment that’s admirable; in fact, this commitment demands that we root for him all the way to the bitter, brutal end.
Revenge breathes a new life in Jeremy Saulnier’s script. The film is very violent, but Saulnier manages to avoid glorifying revenge or bloodshed. Actually, he shows how terrifying, unnerving, sad and awful it is to kill a man. Dwight’s boyish innocence is gone, yet he still doesn’t know what he’s doing, still doesn’t want to do what he’s doing, and still knows he’s not doing a good thing — but feels compelled to protect the only family left in his life, at whatever cost. This relentless drive is what makes Blue Ruin one of the best shoot-‘em-up-until-they-are-all-dead-dead-dead revenge quests, ever.