We see Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), though we don’t yet know his name, entering a stranger’s house to bathe, foraging for food, living out of rusted Pontiac Bonneville parked near a Virginia beach, a beardy ghost who resembles Iron & Wine’s Samuel Beam were Beam a homeless man barely able to speak much less sing. We sense that things haven’t always been like this for Dwight. He has a friend in a local cop, and seems to have retained his wits, though a comical episode in which he steals a handgun before realizing that he cannot use it without breaking an apparently unbreakable lock on its trigger might make us question his IQ. All of this transpires in the first third of Blue Ruin, which is a transfixing, nearly exhilarating display of spare, eloquent, quietly withholding cinema. There is almost no dialogue in the first 20 minutes—and there is a growing sense of disappointment when people begin to speak.
Writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier is clearly very smart and very skilled when it comes to atmosphere and place, and the evocation of ruin generally, but by the time we enter the second half of Blue Ruin those atmospherics are overwhelmed by plot, and that plot is very familiar and more than a little tiresome. Turns out we’re watching yet another American vigilante revenge film, this one about a tit-for-tat family feud: Dwight’s parents were murdered and, harmless as he initially seems, he’s out for blood. Because the style is so strong, the craft so expert, and the story and most of the supporting characters so unimaginative, Blue Ruin feels like a calling card, a way of announcing a promising new filmmaker whose gifts simply need resources and a great script to soar, though this is in fact Saulnier’s second feature, following 2007’s Murder Party, which I haven’t seen. (Saulnier’s also shot some equally evocative films for other directors, like Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to be Darker.) I really look forward to Saulnier’s next film, and certainly recommend this one if it sounds at all up your alley, but I hope he can find a story truly worthy of his filmmaking.