Okay. Blue Ruin. It’s a movie. I think. I watched it on an airplane recently, which isn’t the greatest location for something that requires any measurable concentration. It could’ve been the women across the aisle, haggardly dressed and loosely toothed, cackling about something or other, or the pleasant, elderly Spanish couple next to me speaking the entire time about crossword puzzles while the man unknowingly (I hope) rowed his girth-y elbow across my shoulder and into my chest, or the flight attendant’s children behind me squirming and giggling and kicking seats…but I must’ve missed the something in this film that would’ve helped it make sense to me. Nevertheless, here’s my attempt to construct some meaning from it.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Good stories are characterized by slow revelation, whereby the audience receives the details sufficient to understanding what’s happening in any particular moment of the narrative (and nothing more). Blue Ruin is certainly not short on the “slow” part of this technique, and for a while, it provides the film with remarkable tension and intrigue. But then at a certain point, the story is so reserved and so sparsely detailed that it feels amateurish. It pushes “show, don’t tell” to its limit, which makes the audience question if the director has an adequate grip on the world he’s built for us, or if it simply escaped him. All we know is that Dwight’s parents were killed by a Cleland family member, which sent Dwight into abject isolation, and that Dwight wants revenge for it. And I suppose that’s all we need to know to buy into Dwight’s motivation; the result is sloppy, ill-suited, ill-performed vengeance. Perhaps his awkward attempt at vigilante justice is part of the point. It certainly betrays the standard representations of it we receive, ranging from the grand tragedies of Shakespeare to the righteous journeys of superheroes. And while such juxtaposition frames the discomfort the audience will feel in cooperation with this betrayal, it doesn’t guarantee a worthwhile film experience.
As Dwight proves increasingly inept in his efforts and doubtful of his reasons for them, we care less and less. By the time we reach the Coen brothers-esque bloodbath at the end, it doesn’t really seem to matter. Dwight is in too deep, and it’s clear he can’t turn back, but who cares? Because I was so disinterested in Dwight’s fate, and almost yearned for his tragic demise, I had to wonder: is the film inviting this nihilism? There is certainly no redemption for him (or anyone else doing the same thing) in defending his family’s honor, and it’s not even honor really that he’s defending. It was his father’s infidelity (and, to be fair, the Cleland’s mother’s infidelity) that led to both families being decimated. There is too much convenience and contrivance in the plot to keep us invested. And there’s also the issue of the acting itself. I’m convinced that everyone involved is playing characters, and that’s where the film falls flat. Their performances are almost too self-aware of their own contrived situations, which, yes, it’s a film, so no shit, but no, other films succeed in keeping the fourth wall up. There’s a particularly ineffective scene early on in which Dwight admits to his sister (in a fast food restaurant) that he murdered the presumed killer and thus completed his quest. The emotions are appropriately heightened and dramatic, but there’s an attempt at realism and juxtaposition that stumbles over itself. The actors aren’t their characters, and this shows through in their limp absurdist comedy; a stranger at a nearby table interrupts their grave conversation to ask for ketchup in what should be a suitably awkward moment, but it doesn’t really work. Unfortunately, it feels like the director was a little too pleased with the subversive world he created that he forgot his characters might become charismatic cardboard cutouts in the process. Again, I get the idea that this story is meant to offer a more realistic version of everyman revenge fantasy and to show how ludicrously stupid it is to try and actualize that fantasy, but somehow Liam Neeson’s hyperbolic superman in the Taken series is more believable.
You’re welcome to call the film “dark,” but that would be confusing its vacuity, compelling though it is, with profundity. The film ultimately says nothing, but I will admit that its silence is disquieting.