In early April, Brooklyn-based cinematographer and filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier was en route to shooting a corporate video in Cleveland when he learned that his movie had been accepted to the Cannes Film Festival. It was quite the validation: To make the tense, violent crime drama "Blue Ruin," the first feature Saulnier directed since his scrappy horror-satire "Murder Party" in 2007, Saulnier relied on financing from his wife's retirement fund, his own Amex card, and a last-minute Kickstarter campaign. But Sundance had rejected him and he had started to think the movie might not get out there for another year. Instead, Cannes' esteemed Directors Fortnight section catapulted "Blue Ruin" to international attention at the biggest film gathering in the world.
Recalling that day, Saulnier said, "it made it a lot easier to go shoot B-roll for IBM, knowing what was in store for me."
A month and a half later, Saulnier sat down on the lawn of the Grand Hotel at Cannes and surveyed the scene. "I feel like a public school kid in private school. Everyone here is wearing blazers and jackets. Where I'm from, it's always hoodies and jeans. But I like this. It's fun to dress up."
Saulnier's wide-eyed reaction belies his serious creative ambition. After "Murder Party" won the top prize at the Slamdance Film Festival and received U.S. distribution with Magnolia Pictures, he grew frustrated with the film's minimal returns and returned to shooting commercials for a living. The wacky hipster comedy, in which a Williamsburg resident attends a macabre costume party and is taken captive by the killer hosts, only opened doors for similarly low-rent opportunities. "I got scripts sent my way, but most of them were garbage," he said.
As "Blue Ruin" proves, Saulnier's ambitions were bigger. In 2009, he shot the microbudget romance "You Hurt My Feelings," followed by Matthew Porterfield's widely acclaimed sleeper hit "Putty Hill" and Michael Tully's bizarre Sundance midnight entry "Septien." With newfound faith in his artistry, Saulnier saw another window to make a movie. While he produced "Murder Party" on a whimsical dash to complete a feature before his 30th birthday, "Blue Ruin" came together shortly before the birth of his third daughter. Saulnier figured that if he was going to increase his clout, he needed to act fast. The time had come to tell a more advanced story.
The gamble paid off: A tense, darkly comic and surprisingly esoteric revenge tale in the tradition of the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple," the new movie displays his serious capacity for complex genre cinema. Longtime collaborator Macon Blair, the slapstick figure at the center of "Murder Party," embodies the far more credibly tragic Dwight, a man drawn to concoct a thorny scheme that devolves into an absurd cavalcade of errors.
First seen donning a scraggly beard and living the solitary life of a hermit, the peripatetic loner suddenly learns that the man accused of murdering his parents 20 years ago has been released from prison. Before he's muttered more than a few dazed sentences, Dwight launches on a clumsy warpath that culminates in a superb bathroom showdown that's simultaneously shocking and weirdly awkward. Then he's on the run, with a horde of angry thugs on his tail, leading to several more ill-fated showdowns. Dwight's tribulations include a crossbow-wielding assassin, stalking an old trigger-happy pal in the hopes of strengthening his defenses, and performing a ghastly bit of self-surgery in a wry nod to "No Country For Old Men" -- the movie that Saulnier used to pitch "Blue Ruin" to its eventual producer, Anish Savjani. "I said it was 'No Country' except that the protagonist is a total idiot," Saulnier said.
Originally, he had different plans. His initial screenplay aimed for a more straightforward comedic tone and involved the exploits of a beach bum hired to assassinate someone's dog. Then Blair discovered reports of another production underway with a similar premise. That was Saulnier's wakeup call. "I decided, 'Forget these indie comedies, this milquetoast horseshit,'" he recalled. "We're going to make a revenge movie." But it would be his revenge movie, an off-kilter misadventure littered with irreverent flourishes and technical polish.
Though still a minimalist production that makes no effort to conceal the economy of its design -- Saulnier's shooting locations included the homes of Blair's cousin and Saulnier's mother -- "Blue Ruin" shows a degree of sophistication that unquestionably deepens his filmmaking cred. No longer will "Murder Party" have to be his only calling card. "That was basically a gonzo comedy midnight-type film," he said. "I pigeonholed myself there and couldn't get out of it. With 'Blue Ruin,' I tried very deliberately to shift away from it."
Indeed, the movie displays an ongoing commitment to a mature visual style and an extreme emotional range. Saulnier conveys the scenario with a combination of pathos and breakneck forward momentum that surprises with each new twist. While fearing for the safety of his equally downbeat sister (Amy Hargreaves), Dwight sets out on a doom-laden mission to face his foes even as he repeatedly stumbles. In any case, the body count steadily rises. "Hopefully, people fall in love with him as he blunders through this process," Saulnier said about Blair's character, whose mournful and blustered expressions take him out of the realm of your average rage-fueled gun nut.
Despite its hectic energy, "Blue Ruin" has a plethora of ideas driving its application of violence. That's partly the result of Saulnier's headspace when he was writing the movie last summer and turned on the news to learn of the Aurora shootings. "I was very conflicted," he said. "I didn't mean for the whole guns-in-America thing to come to the forefront."
Yet there's a burgeoning sense that guns, more than any specific individual, serve as the true villain in "Blue Ruin," their presence enabling an ongoing dispute only resolved with their elimination. "I love cinematic violence," Saulnier said. "When bear or lion cubs play, they play kill. When humans play murder in movies, it's totally fine. I think guns are awesome, but for some reason, Americans can't play nice with them." In other words, "Blue Ruin" is a cautionary tale, as Dwight himself acknowledges in a closing monologue.
The premise for the movie pleased enough Kickstarters for Saulnier to reach his $35,000 goal by the end of August, using the contributions of a few hundred people to finance the payroll for his crew. He finished shooting the movie just three weeks before submitting a rough cut to Sundance.
It may have worked out in his favor that the movie still required some work. Saulnier has essentially achieved an indie coup by making exactly the kind of movie he needed to expand his appeal. But while the creative control he maintained on "Blue Ruin" certainly left him satisfied, he expressed an eagerness about facing the challenges involved in bigger projects. "If I can pick and choose, I would love to take a huge step," he said. "No problem."