Violence is difficult to treat honestly. Many directors are guilty of either shying away from gory scenes entirely or using them to make the audience uneasy. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, new on Netflix, takes a different tact by insisting that violence does not come out of a vacuum but from human emotions.
As the movie begins Dwight (Macon Blair) discovers that the man who killed his parents has been released from prison. Dwight is a broken man, devastated by the murders, and like a cornered animal he feels he has no option but to lash out. Inexperienced in the act of killing and delirious with adrenaline, Dwight runs scared from the bloody scene he has created, and scrambles to escape in his victim’s car.
For a moment, it seems he has escaped, but the violence he creates follows him. He realizes there is a passenger in the car and frantically pulls over. The passenger is his victim’s son, who asks knowingly, “did you hurt Wade?” And Dwight doesn’t know how to answer except, “He hurt my parents”—a response so plainly stated as to make his revenge almost seem petty. The kid looks at him and says “I don’t think he did,” then runs from the scene. As Dwight’s grief, anger, and fear mix with doubt, the cocktail of emotions that defines Blue Ruin begins to materialize.
Both violence and its consequences are shown nakedly to the viewer. Honesty is deeply ingrained in Blue Ruin. For instance the movie is, in a sense, indifferent toward the blood onscreen. It puts violence on display but without a tense score or flashy explosions. Each struggle is messy and its consequences permanent: injuries emotional and physical stay open and raw.
Blue Ruin is not flawless. Its most serious mistake is that it keeps viewers at a relatively safe emotional distance. Though Macon Blair’s performance gives us a compelling portrait of a man truly frightened both by the violence in the world and by the anger in himself, viewers can’t fully understand him. This is partly because we never see what Dwight lost exactly; we know Dwight has lost his parents, but Saulnier never explores what this relationship meant to his apparently grief-stricken protagonist. We don’t lose Dwight’s parents with him, which robs the film of emotional urgency.
Despite shortcomings with the screenplay the film succeeds as a character study, letting us into Dwight’s personal nightmare and showing us his emotional evolution. Dwight comes to see the violence he put in motion grow and nearly swallow his entire world, and he eventually finds in himself the sort of monster he had sought to destroy. The movie’s honesty is central in these moments because it gives this realization serious weight. We understand further that the revenge cycle he sets off, or maybe is merely a part of, will continue either in blood or tears long after the end credits roll.
Even though it is a tightly crafted thriller, Blue Ruin is not particularly pleasant to watch. And rightly so: it uses the elements of a traditional thriller to create uneasiness and introspection instead of mere excitement. In the end perhaps it instructs more than entertains, presenting us with the ugliness of our world in stark reality.
With an honest depiction of violence, Blue Ruin explores the emotional and physical damage we do to one another.