Introduced in a state of ascetic poverty, Blue Ruin’s rangy hero circles society like a wary animal, poking around the fringes of a lively Virginia beach town. Foraging fast food from dumpsters and using discarded carnival tickets as bookmarks, his handling of these objects identifies his cast-off status and his detachment from the larger world, as does the junker of a car that serves as his home, nestled uselessly among the sand dunes. Yet as revealed in the film’s opening scene, in which he breaks into a suburban house to enjoy the luxury of a quick bath, the vagrant eventually revealed as Dwight (Macon Blair) hasn’t totally shrugged off the demands of civility. The story of a man rebuilding his life from questionable materials, Blue Ruin itself feels dubiously constructed, a character drama whose protagonist remains fundamentally inscrutable.
Quickly linking Dwight’s homelessness to the fallout from a double murder years prior, Blue Ruin fills in just enough backstory to sketch out his subsequent quest for justice. The rest remains a mystery, since despite a superficial devotion to depicting the tragic devastation and bloody rebirth of this shattered man, the film prizes his thematic import over his humanity. He’s a narrative tool, intended to both jump-start the action and suffer from its complicated fallout, finding symbolic representation in the handgun he steals but is unable to use, wrecking the weapon while trying to disengage its safety lock. Such events confirm this as a movie focused on process, in which the violence grows organically from neatly laid-out circumstances, but also one that short-changes its characters in order to focus almost exclusively on the spreading aura of that violence.
There’s definite irony here, in the spectacle of a dead man returning to life only to seed ruin among enemies and friends alike, but the film remains so understated and indirect that its underlying message is never entirely clear. Director Jeremy Saulnier ratchets up the suspense with admirable precision, moving discretely from one gruesome scenario to another, but his overall sense of reticence reads as unsteadiness, rather than an interest in playing things close to the vest. This shakiness culminates in a brief but important episode with Ben (Devin Ratray), one of Dwight’s former high school buddies, now a gun nut living out in the sticks. These two characters act as doubled images of one another, each having passed from carefree youth to death-obsessed adulthood, each having experienced an intermediary stage of acute trauma (Dwight from the aforementioned murders, Ben from service in Iraq). But the potential for any dramatic subtlety here is squandered, the scene culminating with swiftly delivered violence, shifting the focus further toward Dwight’s transformation into a melancholy DIY Rambo, the resurgence of violent impulses from his past pushing him back over the edge.
It’s in this way that Blue Ruin ends up within the broad realm of movies which, despite well-intentioned efforts to make a statement on violence, end up themselves consumed by the power of that force. As much as the film may want to convey a negative impression of its ensuing bloodshed, through grubby public bathroom stabbings and unglamorous shootouts, it inevitably runs off the innate power of such scenes, the inherent excitement of bad guys being stalked and killed. Reducing Dwight first to a pain-addled husk, then the scarecrow self he creates to cope with that powerlessness, it leaves him as a damaged cipher who exists only to advance the plot. His adversaries are even more faceless, a band of sinister hillbillies who remain barely dissociable from one another. Sneaky and anonymous, they represent the inverse of his tarnished, wrongheaded courage, and with each act of violence he commits, Dwight gets further tainted by the mark of his enemies, to the extent that he’s eventually holed up in their cluttered house, trying to dismantle a huge hoard of weaponry.
Yet for all the guns Dwight ends up destroying, he still needs a few on hand to protect himself, a fact that highlights the trap the film itself falls into. Blue Ruin contains a notable number of scenes where our endangered hero puts down his weapon, going unarmed at times when doing so might seem suicidally stupid. This connects to the wobbly hesitance of the film, which wants to be about more than guns and the men who wield them, but is unsure of how to make that push, trapped inside a routine revenge-fantasy structure. By reducing its principals to stock figures in an extended chess game (the stripped-down, small-batch equivalent of a standard action thriller), it ends up providing steady, neatly staged thrills, but little else of substance.