In 1984, a pair of shaggy Jewish brothers from a suburb of Minneapolis released a low-budget neo-noir crime thriller that, with its hard edges and bold style, would do for independent cinema what Nirvana, a few years later, would do for indie music. That film, a brooding tale of revenge cast with relatively unknown actors, not only launched the brothers’ career as a cinematic team but also set the tone for a new breed of auteur: filmmakers who, like Robert Altman before them, leverage uncommon artistic control over their creation, from writing and directing to producing and beyond.
Those brothers were Joel and Ethan Coen, aka the Coen Brothers, and the film, which they wrote, directed and co-produced, was Blood Simple, a ragged, jagged story of almost unbearable suspense set in the humid badlands of rural Texas. I recently re-watched the movie, and even 30 years later Blood Simple retains its exhilarating aura of discovery, surprising as a rattlesnake coiled in a snakeskin boot.
And, three decades later, here comes young filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier with Blue Ruin, a tragic tale of vengeance that, with its hard economy and hangman’s snap — its blood simplicity — is a dead-ringer tribute to what the Coens wrought.
Funded by a Kickstarter campaign and written, directed and shot by Saulnier, Blue Ruin is the story of Dwight (Macon Blair), a young homeless man who, as the film opens, is roused from sleeping in his car by a sympathetic cop who informs him that the man who killed his parents is soon to be released from prison.
The effect of this news is chilling: Dwight, all doe eyes and Jesus beard, goes from man adrift to man on a mission, as he fires up his car and heads to Virginia, where his parents’ murderer is going free. What ensues is as shocking and vicious as it is inevitable, a series of events that sends out ripples of violent reckoning in a swamp of sex, lies and vigilante rage.
Like plague, the end game of vengeance is not revenge but annihilation, and Saulnier’s sure-handed debut creates a sealed atmosphere of dread, where the consequences of one act lead excruciatingly to the next, no matter how surprising or unintended. As the Coens did with Blood Simple, Saulnier’s Blue Ruin turns a simple crime story into a devious meditation on our darkest impulses and where they lead us.