Monday, January 27, 2014

Sundance ’14: Blue Ruin

It only takes one family to launch a feud. By the same token, an emotionally damaged drifter hopes it will only take one family member to end it. Revenge is indeed the gift that keeps on giving but never fully satisfies in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (trailer here), which screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

After the murder of his parents, Dwight Evans’ psyche just disintegrated. In recent years, he has survived hand-to-mouth, often living uninvited in the homes of vacationing families, until they return. Then he resumes crashing in his beat up blue four door sedan. His anaesthetized existence is interrupted by a sympathetic police officer, who informs Evans the man who killed his parents is about to be released from parole.

Will Cleland is a member of the thuggish Cleland clan. Even though they own a successful limousine rental company, they are more comfortable with back hills living.  Vengeance is definitely the sort of thing they are better at, but Evans shadows Cleland from prison to his roadhouse celebration nonetheless. He is clearly an inexperienced killer, as we see firsthand when he confronts Cleland alone in the men’s room.  From there, one darned thing leads inexorably to another, generating a whole lot of angst and bodies, but also threatening to engulf Evans’ estranged sister and her family.

At its essence, Ruin is equally akin to classical tragedy and hillbilly exploitation films.  Saulnier’s execution is wickedly effective, showing all the awkwardness of killing and the messiness of the resulting aftermath. Frankly, some of the most inspired scenes in Ruin are the bits most films gloss over. Yet, the tension never flags, notwithstanding the occasional punctuations of gruesome humor.

As Evans, co-executive producer Macon Blair is one of the most intense sad sacks you will ever see on screen. He is a palpably haunted presence, but shows flashes of inspiration, making it impossible not to root for him, despite his alarming tendency to make mistakes. He commands the film, but Devin Ratray adds some welcome attitude and general humanity as Evans’ well armed high school friend, Ben Gaffney. Eve Plumb (a.k.a. Jan Brady) is also all kinds of fierce as the ruthless Kris Cleland, thereby guaranteeing Ruin a sizable cult following.

They won’t be disappointed either. Blue Ruin is a taut and evocative thriller that utilizes its southern gothic violence for comedic and elegiac purposes. It is a cooker, recommended for anyone who enjoys payback cinema. With a theatrical and VOD release coming from Radius-TWC, Blue Ruin will also screen at the SF Indie Fest on February 16th & 20th, following its Spotlight selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.