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TIFF Review: Suspense Thriller ‘Blue Ruin’ Is Terrifying, And Excitingly Singular

TIFF Review: Suspense Thriller 'Blue Ruin' Is Terrifying, And Excitingly Singular

Dwight (Macon Blair), the lead
character of “Blue Ruin,” is a haggard, defeated, middle-aged man. His clothing
clings to him, as if to avoid callously slipping to the ground. His beard seems
to have formed on his face the way weeds gather on undernourished lawns. One of
our first glimpses of his eyes come from the way they gape when he finds out
people are home, and he’s naked in the bath. His mad dash reveals this is not
his house. But those eyes remain troubled even when he’s not using the homes
and resources of others. The sense is that Dwight hasn’t been home for years,
and he hasn’t felt at home within himself for even longer.

The picture quickly settles
into a familiar genre set-up. Dwight is alerted by local police that the man
convicted of murdering his parents is set to be released from prison. The fact
that authorities have accepted Dwight’s local vagrancy suggests the details of
the killing are far more troubling than we can imagine. Whatever happened has
caused Dwight to become the inward, rootless drifter he’s become, but now he
has a purpose, and that purpose is revenge.

Jeremy Saulnier’s film
benefits greatly from subverting familiar tropes, as Dwight very quickly finds his
target and dispenses with justice swiftly. It’s at that point where the story
begins: almost every film in this genre, even the more plausible ones, feature
a hero who immediately slips into revenge mode. In more ridiculous movies, the
hero begins to display an improbable attention to detail, setting traps and
outsmarting the villains. In the more grounded revenge pictures, the
protagonists still find ways to cover their tracks, to think like movie
characters, maximizing their resources and managing their surroundings.

Revenge films are so popular
because of that wish fulfillment: no matter how comical the most inept characters
might be, they’ll eventually reveal their survivalist skills and/or bloodlust,
usually in audience-pleasing moments of catharsis. But Dwight is a bumbling
fool, one who immediately realizes he’s been fueled by hate, not reason, as
soon as he flees from the crime scene. There’s a way to mine big dumb laughs
from this approach, but Saulnier refuses to cave to this tendency. Every
slip-up that Dwight makes, failing to cover his tracks, acting in a way that places
others in danger, and basically diagramming a way for the killer’s family to
find him, comes from a very human moment. Blair’s whimpering performance goes a
long way. He speaks very little, and when he tries to make his point to
punctuate his violence, he stutters. When he finally shaves, even his chin is

That wish fulfillment element
has always created a distancing effect when these types of films attempt to
elevate the illusions of a bloodthirsty audience. “Blue Ruin” instead finds the
horror in every small slip-up—Oh god, who’s watching the kids? Do you think
they got my license plate? Do they know I have never fired a gun in my life?
Even Dwight seems cognizant of appearing like a first-timer, like a failed
attempt to Rambo-ize a wound, or the rejection of the wisdom from a local war
vet (Devin Ratray), which seems to have less to do with egotism and more to do
with feeling even more out of his element.

Saulnier’s first film was the
underseen but wickedly funny “Murder Party.” That picture was a lark; a comedy
about a group of hipsters who were torn between natural sadism and the thought
that killing innocents was passé. That ironic distance is absent from Saulnier’s
much more accomplished second feature, one that never leaves Dwight’s perspective,
and therefore his broken prioritization of what will keep him out of danger.
There are no moments of safety once Dwight has committed his first sin, and as
such there are no moments of safety in “Blue Ruin.” Saulnier has made 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. It’s easily the most suspenseful American film of the year, a
thriller that feels like lightning across a quiet night sky; sudden,
terrifying, and excitingly singular. [A-]   

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