As far as the multiplexes are concerned, there’s only one movie opening this weekend — something about a spider, I think? But much of the country will also be getting their first look at the infinitely smaller, astronomically better “Blue Ruin,” which goes wide(r) after opening in limited release last week. (It’s also available on demand.) It’s currently ranked as the sixth-best movie of 2014 according to the Criticwire network, rated 96 percent fresh at Rotten Tomatoes and has a Metascore of 77.
As the blood-soaked image of star Macon Blair above might tell you, “Blue Ruin” is not exactly a relaxing watch. (He loses the homeless-drifter beard partway through, at least.) But the movie, which was written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, is gripping in a way the weightless “Amazing Spider-Man 2” doesn’t come close to equalling, and it does a far better job of exploring the dark side of vigilante justice.
It’s also the movie that convinced me that Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” was no good. I defended Payne’s film against charges that it caricatured the Midwest, most of which seemed to be leveled by critics who’d spent far less time in the region than Payne, a native and still loyal Omahan. But it certainly did reduce some of its characters to stereotypes, if not regional ones, especially the portly, venal cousins who were hell-bent on depriving delusional Bruce Dern of his meager worldly possessions. One of those cousins was played by Devin Ratray, who inhabited his two-dimensional dope so thoroughly I took him to be one of the nonprofessional actors Payne often mixes into his scenes. But then I saw “Blue Ruin,” and there was Ratray again, this time playing a firearms aficionado who reluctantly teaches Blair’s hellbent angel of vengeance how to handle a weapon. Although he could have easily played the character as a rabid gun nut, Ratray gives him a melancholy gravitas, which mirrors the movie’s overall approach to violent revenge. It doesn’t deprive us, to speak, of the bloody satisfaction that comes with paying an offense back in kind. But it doesn’t shy away from the costs, either, nor tack on a moralistic ending like some ’30s gangster movie that feeds us the vicarious thrill of lawbreaking and then scolds us for enjoying ourselves.
Scott Tobias, the Dissolve
It’s a type of story that’s been told before, but Saulnier makes the crucial decision not to turn “Blue Ruin” into an out-and-out farce about criminal incompetence; instead, the film’s hero is occasionally resourceful, occasionally inept, and at all times out of his depth. His mistakes may be funny or devastating or both, but his ordinariness is ever apparent.
The film locates the sweet spot between poised art cinema and exploitation-flick pandering and hits it over and over again; what keeps “Blue Ruin” from simply being a bludgeoning experience is Saulnier’s cleverness in knowing precisely how and when to throw his haymakers.
A feral and staggeringly well-conceived revenge saga that extrapolates one vagrant’s long-simmering quest to avenge the death of his parents into a study of how violence (a word that could apparently use some nice synonyms) is transformative, an animating force unto itself capable of turning tools into weapons and men into killers.
As visually striking as one might expect a film helmed by a talented cinematographer to be. But Saulnier has more than a great eye; he’s got the soul of a natural filmmaker — a patience and confidence, evident from the mysterious opening scenes onward.
Gabe Toro, the Playlist
A film of almost unbearable tension, a no-frills pressure cooker that rattles the senses not just for what occurs (the brief moments of violence are convincingly staggered and upsettingly abrupt), but for what’s waiting just off screen at every turn.
A brilliant, slow-burning American revenge thriller that hardly puts a foot wrong, a work of startling violence and profound conscience that announces the arrival of an exciting young director.
There’s so little dialogue it’s as though Saulnier feared he’d have to pay $1 a word. But the film looks like $1 million and plays like gangbusters.
Saulnier might be one of the first filmmakers of his generation to reflect in a fictional way upon the devastation done to our national psyche by gunfire attacks that seem to show up daily in headlines, both grand-scale massacres and one-on-one confrontations.
It’s a post-moral free-for-all during which the participants, like the audience, seem to be dazedly asking themselves, How the hell did we get here from there?
I expect more than low genre crap from a filmmaker as obviously sophisticated as Saulnier—a suggestion that, in a world teeming with would-be avengers, the social order cracks when every fool with a gun thinks he has been injured and his cause is just. Blue Ruin is more artful and evocative than any recent revenge picture, but it’s still drivel.