Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” is a paradigm of the type of high-quality film that can be made by an indie filmmaker. It is also an example of the extreme “grind” that is involved in making such a film.
The High Quality of BLUE RUIN
Saulnier funded the movie in part through a 2012 Kickstarter campaign that raised $37,828. This crowdfunding effort exceeded its goal of $35K. This is a huge success, especially since Kickstarter takes a bite out of the funds raised . Part of the reason for it is Saulnier’s instinct for marketing. Rather than go for a niche in the crowd, he aimed at a somewhat larger number of potential backers by describing “Blue Ruin” as a “revenge film equally suited for art house cinephiles and die-hard genre fans.”
Part of the beauty of this slogan is that it is true. Although its story fits the description of a revenge thriller, the film tells its story in a much more artistic fashion than most offerings in the genre. One reason is that its protagonist, Dwight (Macon Blair) is no hero. He is not a superman who is a skilled martial artist, weapons expert, and tech guru (with access to and facility with the latest, cutting-edge technology). Instead, he is a homeless man who lives out of his car near a Virginia beachfront, where dines from garbage bags in which he forages for the uneaten fast-food of tourists and weekend warriors.
The film does not waste any time with lengthy exposition. Saulnier moves his anti-hero into action within the first few minutes of run-time. He provides just enough information for the viewer to follow along, withholding until later Dwight’s deeper motivations and key information about him, such as why he sank to a low level of existence and the reasons for his revenge. At the start we know only that his parents were killed by a man, Wade Cleland (uncredited), who is being paroled from prison. It does not take long for Dwight to kill him after his release.
Little by little, we learn more about Dwight, his situation, and his history. Although he does not lack the courage and basic ability to track down and kill his parents’ murderer rather quickly (within the first act), he manages to make key mistakes in doing so. These screw-ups complicate his escape from the Cleland family, who forego reporting the crime in order to pursue their own vengeance on him. When he arrives at his sister’s (Sam [Amy Hargreaves]) home to tell her what he has done and warn her to flee to save herself and her two children, we learn that he is “not crazy,” but “weak,” in the sister’s words. He then turns to a high school buddy, Ben Gaffney (Devin Ratray), who has active-duty combat experience and a small armory of weapons. Ruthless in his support for his friend, Ben saves Dwight from being killed by one of the Cleland brothers by blowing his face off with a long-range rifle shot. He realizes that Dwight is driven to go on the offense against the Clelands without the emotional detachment necessary to both succeed and survive. Sensing the “personal” nature of Dwight’s drivenness, Ben advises him that he will lose if he keeps delivering speeches to his enemies instead of quietly and quickly killing them.
Yet, like Jesus heading to certain death in Jerusalem, Dwight is driven towards a final confrontation with his enemies on his own terms. His Everyman type of common courtesy even extends to giving them a decent burial after he has killed them. This will prove to be his Achilles’ heel, one that he is aware of and in fact probably depends upon to ensure that his vengeance will not go unpunished.
The BLUE RUIN Grind
As for ourselves, we’re going all-in. Maxing out credit cards, refinancing homes and cashing in retirement accounts. But we need $35K-$50K in cash to cover expenses we can’t swipe, barter for, or defer.
-Jeremy Saulnier, “Blue Ruin” Kickstarter home page
Besides committing all of his money and time to make “Blue Ruin,” Saulnier wrote, directed, and filmed it himself. Speaking of the grind, lead actor Blair certainly also drank deep from this well, enduring the same grueling experience as Saulnier. According to my memory, he is in every scene, both as a shaggy beach vagrant and as a cleaned-up, faux suburban yuppie. He maintains and develops his character throughout.
The experience of watching “Blue Ruin” is also a grind, but a high-quality, enjoyable one. Disarmingly straightforward, the film’s tension builds inexorably, setting the viewer up for a few surprise twists in the second and third acts. There is some comic relief as well, such as the scenes in which Teddy Cleland (Kevin Kolack) is locked in the trunk of Dwight’s junker car. For example, in response to Teddy’s screaming and pounding on the trunk lid, Dwight tells him he will not let him out until he has a gun. With fake sincerity, Teddy responds, “I can get you a gun.”
My one criticism is that Dwight and those on his side are more developed as characters than the Cleland family members. Taken together, they come off as a stock redneck outlaw family. The one exception is Teddy, who has enough screen time to provide some insight into the social psychology of the Cleland clan. In addition, it is to Saulnier’s credit that he introduces the character of Carl Cleland (Brent Werzner) in the first act’s limousine theft scene. Carl plays a key role in the finale at the end of the third act. Certain facts about his past, related the answer to the mystery of why Dwight’s parents were killed, explain his behavior in this scene.
Red-Hot BLUE RUIN
I’m hands-on. I’ve led large crews on commercial sets, I’ve shot award-winning films on shoestring budgets, I’ve sculpted prosthetic makeup appliances and trained dogs to perform stunts. What I’ve never done is use my broad skill set to realize something great. To that end, I humbly ask for your support. Put your faith in my team and we will come through. I’ll happily stake my career on it.
-Jeremy Saulnier, “Blue Ruin” Kickstarter home page
Saulnier and his team (including production companies Filmscience and Neighborhood Watch) did come through, in spades. The film premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section. It was selected for the 2013 Toronto Film Festival and the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Subsequently it was released to theaters and VOD in April of this year (by Radius TWC in the U.S.). According to Box Office Mojo, “Blue Ruin’s” domestic box office total as of Jun. 26, 2014 is $258,384; its widest release was 61 theaters, where it played for 63 days. I watched it on a Blu-ray disc sourced from Netflix, so obviously it is available in this medium (as well as DVD).
Major critics’ reviews for “Blue Ruin” have been overwhelmingly positive. With 112 major reviews to date, the film currently holds a Tomatometer rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. On Metacritic, it scores a 77, based on 32 reviews. Audiences like it as well, giving the film a 78% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 7.5 user score on Metacritic, and a 7.1 /10 rating (based on 10,030 votes) on IMDB.
The movie blogosphere also gave “Blue Ruin” a big thumbs-up. For example, Courtney Small at Cinema Axis wrote:
Much of Blue Ruin’s success is due to Jeremy Saulnier’s overall restraint with the film. He brilliantly refuses to take short cuts or employ gimmicks to keep his plot moving forward. He embraces measured pacing to ensure the film evokes maximum tension. It also helps that Saulnier has a chameleon-like Macon Blair holding up his end of the bargain on the performance side of things. Blair is sensational as Dwight, bringing both complexity and naiveté to the role. He expertly conveys that Dwight’s journey was doomed from the minute it started. Dwight is so consumed by hatred that he is too blind to even question if he is actually going after the right man.
Speaking of Blair, Thy Critic Man did an interesting and informative interview with him. In his explanation of how he prepared for his role, Macon provides an insight into the grind of indie filmmaking that characterized the making of “Blue Ruin”:
I’m mellow, depressed, and devoid of charisma in real life so I barely lifted a finger. Here’s the thing: the crew on the movie was working for $100 a day or less humping cable and lights all the hell over Virginia, we had producers running around all day trying to line up locations and picture cars and cast and everything else, Jeremy is barely sleeping at all because he’s doing everything at once so there was a tremendous amount of hard work being done on this movie but I did the very least of it. But yes, it’s all paid off in spades. For the role, I learned my lines and I grew a beard. The rest was just listening very closely to my director.