You can tell bad storytelling from a distance by how often it requires its characters to stop and explain to the audience what the hell is going on. And you can tell a great story by how little it explains anything. Its truths are self-evident by the action and dialogue on display. This is especially true of movies, where so much can be communicated with the most sparely written scenes. It requires a courageous kind of filmmaking to craft such a story for the screen, but when it works, it is a thing of wonder. And within this fairly small family of films. Blue Ruin, an unlikely neo-noir thriller from 2013 certainly stands out.
Dwight Evans is a disheveled vagrant living along coastal Virginia. He scavenges for supplies and money, and occasionally breaks into unoccupied homes to steal a little food, take a bath and watch TV. He is the sort of broken fellow who retreats at night to his barely functioning, blue sedan, which doubles as his shelter. Though he is dirty and weird, he is the kind of person who nobody would fear because he projects not a single ounce of menace. He is simply pathetic. When the local police inform him that Wade Cleland, the man who killed Dwight’s father many years ago, is about to be paroled, Dwight doesn’t let on that the news means anything to him. He just takes it with the same meek, hangdog look with which he takes in everything else in the world. And yet, a few days later, there Dwight is, with a fillet knife in hand, hiding out in a bathroom, ready to ambush Wade when the guy steps out of the toilet. If Dwight had been thinking about avenging his father for the many years that Wade was in prison, he doesn’t show it. And if he had been preparing for this fateful moment of payback, he doesn’t show that either, because Dwight Evans is bad a lot of things, but killing people is what he is worst at. And yet, that’s what he’s decided he has to do, against a family that is a whole lot bigger, meaner, and better at killing than he is. He is a mouse trying to take revenge on a glaring of cats, the kind of quest that only ever has one kind of outcome, but Dwight either can’t see it, or more likely, disregards it. This is a man whose entire life has become a form of slow-motion suicide. The question is how many people he ends up taking with him, innocent and guilty alike.
This is a tight, stripped-down story by the same director who later produced the mean and lean thriller Green Room, and much of the same bleak edginess is present here in Blue Ruin, only where Green Room plays out along the more conventional lines of a kind of escape-the-room and survive-the-siege thriller, Blue Ruin proceeds on a course that makes little sense to any kind of conventional storytelling. The pacing is different. The characters are different. The action is different. This is the sort of story where your brain disengages from the kind of usual beats it has come to expect from thrillers and just goes into observation mode. The story might be set in the real world, but it takes place in Dwight Evans’ world, and that is a strange place indeed, filled with dark half-secrets, dry husks of old relationships, and the lingering remnants of what is supposed to feel like justice, but never does.
The moment of truth in this movie is early on, when we see that Dwight is going to exact revenge for an old crime we don’t really understand, but we imagine probably has something to do with why Dwight has chosen to live like a 21st century hunter-gatherer in a car that looks like a moving tetanus factory. Dwight needs a weapon, and he steals a revolver from a parked truck. At this point, we expect him to procure ammo, and take a few practice shots, tuck the gun in his belt and go hunting for old man Cleland. We don’t get any of that. Instead, we see that the gun Dwight stole has a trigger lock installed on it. This is the last thing Dwight expects, so he tries to jimmy it open, but no dice. Then he tries to break the lock and just ends up breaking the gun instead. He throws the stolen pistol away and decides he’ll just kill Wade with a skinny blade he uses to gut fish, instead. It is absolutely not the weapon for the job. But Dwight doesn’t know that, because that’s what kind of story this is. It is not a story of justice by another means. It is not a satisfying tale of one guy getting back at bad people. It’s perhaps one of the most compelling looks at revenge I’ve ever seen: a dark force that fills that room in your heart where love ought to be, something that robs your mind of its highest functions, and turns the will of men and women into the base reactions of animals.
We see this most by the state of Dwight before and after he decides to go down his road of vengeance. Before, he is a filthy, tangled mess of a human living barefoot a mind the trash of other people with no prospect other than making sure he does not starve, thirst or freeze to death. He has given up all other things in life: friends, family, future. He has let the grief of his family tragedy deliver him into his sorry, wretched state. But when he lets his anguish turn to a quest for blood, we see that for all his wretchedness, Dwight still had much farther to fall. When we decide to live for death, we step from a precipice to which we cannot return.