A Short History of Violence: “Blue Ruin”

CINEMA’S GREATEST FLAW AS POLEMIC is its tendency to romanticize that which it intends to criticize, which probably is why most polemic movies aren’t very good. Perhaps the best example is Michael Winner’s notorious “Death Wish,” which was torpedoed as any sort of statement about vigilantism the moment Charles Bronson was miscast as its protagonist. The racism didn’t help, either, but that’s almost beside the point. Even Peckinpah’s magnum opus, “The Wild Bunch,” works not as an indictment of violence, but as an illustration of its futility in civilized society. And in any case, Peckinpah’s graphic violence became the movie’s calling card and inadvertently paved the way for, say, “Cobra.” When he got it right — “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” and “Cross of Iron” — movie-goers weren’t particularly interested.

In that light, “Blue Ruin” is a revelation, a narrative of murder and consequences, and more to the point, vengeance. Its central “twist” is the decision to start with what would be the denouement of a shitty movie and follow the natural consequences. Here is a revenge movie in which the revenge is never truly thought out, let alone planned. The revenge is the catalyst, not the conclusion. The characters, and audience, are forced to deal with the consequences. They aren’t pleasant. In “Blue Ruin,” revenge is neither sweet nor served cold; it’s hot and sweaty and impulsive.

The protagonist is a homeless man named Dwight Evans whose entire life already is the result of revenge, and in that sense the plot was set in motion by someone else — in this case, as in so many others, his father. This is revealed as the plot plays out, and there is a plot. The narrative is smart and engaging — the ending revolves around a clever trap set by the increasingly effective Dwight — and the dialog sticks with you, as when Dwight’s sister tells him, “If you were crazy, I’d feel sorry for you. But you’re not crazy; you’re weak.” Ouch.

The movie revolves around an often silent performance by Macon Blair, whose general anonymity helps, but this is what they call a “breakout performance.” Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, whose career started as a DP, has a keen and eye and ear for detail. The character of Dwight’s friend Ben, as written by Saulnier and played by Devin Ratray, is a fascinating brush with both the outside world and insular state of affairs in rural Virginia. The punchline joins a rare cinematic club (“Smile,” “Wake In Fright”) of perfect endings.

“Blue Ruin” is streaming on Netflix. Watch it while you can.

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