Blue Ruin, now playing on-demand and opening in theaters next week in Seattle, won a 2013 FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The award is given to “promote film-art and to encourage new and young cinema,” an entirely worthy goal, but is this independent film worthy of receiving it? The movie begins with scenes of studied observation, the kind of quiet, oblique details foreign film juries embrace for their teasing insinuations, rather than their obvious intentions. But what begins as a character study of a troubled homeless beach bum, living out of his car, eating from dumpsters, breaking into homes to steal showers and baths and moments of normalcy (he watches TV and locks up the houses when finished), lurches awkwardly into a different kind of film or, more to the point, into a film we’ve all seen before, the standard-issue revenge thriller.
Directed, written and photographed by Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin is crafted with enviable economy. Every scene, shot and camera angle is punctuated with a solemn, thematic weight, as the story takes shape almost imperceptibly. The homeless man, Dwight (Macon Blair), who sleeps in his battered car (the “blue ruin” of the title), is awakened one morning by a police officer who seems to know him and who is there to deliver some important news: a man Dwight should be wary of is being paroled from prison. But instead of hiding out he rushes in, following the man and his relatives to a roadside tavern, laying in wait in the restroom and then stabbing the parolee to death, blood spurting messily against the walls and Dwight’s white T-shirt. Scenes like this invariably trigger my skepticism meter. Is this a plausible reality or is it “movie reality”; is it intended to challenge assumptions or check the box on the indie must-have list. Hapless 30-something chubby white hero? Check. Gratuitous spray of blood from kitchen knife? Check.
Although my meter was now alert and ticking, the movie hadn’t lost me just yet. The next few scenes played out beautifully, especially an anguished reunion between Dwight and his estranged sister (Amy Hargreaves), a divorced mom with two kids, who share the tragic history that sets the movie’s revenge machinery into gear. By this point it’s clear Saulnier has the talent for constructing scenes of tense emotional drama as well as sudden violence, and there is a mournful resignation to all of Dwight’s actions, which tell us much about his past, his friendships, the tangled connections between the characters, without having to spell everything out. But with such an obvious command of environment and mood, it was disheartening to realize Saulnier didn’t have the same control over the story. Once Dwight convinces his sister to leave town because her life may be in danger, the movie veers wildly off-course. No, let me amend that. Confronted by a fork in the narrative road, Blue Ruin chooses the well-traveled path of contrivance and formula, rather than the more intriguing journey into something original and unsettling.
Dwight decides to take on the dead man’s family, a group of menacing hillbillies whose own past is intertwined with his. A series of showdowns ensue. Dwight makes enough stupid mistakes to ensure the engine of the plot keeps running, and his incompetence is balanced by the convenient ineptitudes of his adversaries. The movie devolves from a thoughtful, atmospheric character piece, simmering with apprehensions, into a tired tale of retribution, stocked with grisly shootings and ridiculous coincidences. The loser here is Dwight. Introduced to us as a distressed but resourceful young man, burdened by a horrific family tragedy and in need of sympath — as well as a bath — he turns out, sadly, to be very much like the movie he finds himself in: disappointing and forgettable.
This review originally appeared on The Restless Critic.