The man seems to be enjoying his bath, as steam curls the air around him and clouds up the glass. Somewhere in another room, the news drones on from a television set. The man hears a noise, reaches to turn off the running faucet, listens, and, satisfied it was his imagination, continues with his bath. A moment later, he hears another noise, and realizes that the family into whose house he has broken is coming through the front door. He punches out the screen of a back window and flees into a network of backyards, naked as a newborn baby.
Having no place to bathe is just another part of Dwight Evan’s life. He’s not great looking, has round, sad eyes, and speaks in the softest monotones. The bushels of unkempt hair on his head and face would make even the most hardened mountain man think about buying an electric razor. He spends his days digging through other people’s trash, and his nights trying to get comfortable in the back seat of his last worldly possession: a rusted-out Pontiac Bonneville. We know nothing about him, other than who he is at this very moment in time.
One morning, a cop knocks on Dwight’s car window and asks him to come downtown. He’s not in trouble, but the cop has some distressing news. The information she provides becomes the impetus for Jeremy Saulnier’s micro-budgeted “Blue Ruin,” a smart American crime drama that somehow manages to spill a whole lot of blood with very little bombast.
In an effort to right a past wrong, Dwight will imperil the live of many people, including those of his only sister and her two young children, and an old high school acquaintance for whom the term “survivalist” is an understatement. Dwight will go from the coast of Delaware to the backwoods of Virginia, and involve himself in dealings that can only be described as incredibly seedy, and the outcome will be very bad for a lot of people. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot, as maddeningly vague as it may be.
“Blue Ruin” is a movie of constant surprises, of clever twists and turns at every corner that cannot be divulged without obliterating the total effect. It’s quiet and, at times, uncomfortably intense, and punctuated by brief moments of explosive violence. Many have described “Blue Ruin” as a revenge movie, but I think that’s only half right: it’s also one of the most satisfying character studies to come along in quite some time, and what a character we get in Dwight. This isn’t some muscle-bloated vigilante strapped down with guns and ammo, taking out bad guys through a well-calibrated rifle sight; that would be far too generic a take. Instead, he’s gentle and awkward, passive to a point, and wholly unprepared for the sudden diversion in the course of his already-meaningless life. When violence erupts, he seems more surprised than anyone else in the room. That’s because vengeance isn’t a way of life for Dwight, but a logical means to assuage long-gestating grief. He does what he does because he feels he has no choice and is left with little to lose. Macon Blair, a relative unknown until now, is effective in the role, carefully balancing Dwight’s lack of confidence with his ferocious desire to even a score.
Expert thrillers like this, that arrive out of nowhere on a razor-thin budget and with no studio-backed marketing campaign, are why I love the movies so much. I love to be surprised, to be transported and challenged and left with a satisfied grin on my face. “Blue Ruin” did all of those those things for me, in the same way “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” did. Is “Blue Ruin” in the same category as those masterpieces? I’m not sure just yet, but my gut says yes. It also tells me I should be prepared for great things to come from Jeremy Saulnier.