How Does “Blue Ruin” Subvert the Conventions of the Typical Revenge Film?

Most of us love a good revenge film, and we know what to expect from the genre. When the lead, usually wronged by some terrible tragedy or a betrayal, recovers from grieving and goes on a rampage, killing everyone who gets in their way, a sense of satisfaction comes over the viewers. In textbook revenge film Kill Bill (2003), the protagonist, known to us as “The Bride” (Uma Thurman), tragically loses her fiancé on her wedding day and is sent into a comatose state for four years. When she wakes up, all she has in her mind is revenge on Bill, the man that ruined her life. It is convenient, then, that she happens to be a former member of a group of deadly assassins called the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.” Most revenge film leads are, like the Bride, agile people who happen to be ex-CIA agents or marines or have inherited the genes from parents who apparently must have been veteran special agents. Blue Ruin (2014) is not one of those revenge films.

At the beginning of Blue Ruin, Dwight (played by Macon Blair), a homeless beach bum, is enraged to hear that his parent’s killer has been let loose from prison. He decides to return to his hometown with the intent to kill the murderer and avenge his parent’s death. But that framework is all that Blue Ruin has in common with other revenge movies. The manner in which Dwight executes that revenge is something that we don’t see often. First of all, Dwight, the vagabond, unsurprisingly does not know how to use a gun. He does not know how to just barge in and kill someone without getting noticed; his father—who I would presume was a regular person and not related to James Bond—didn’t teach him that skill. All he knows is that his parent’s killer is out there, and he wants to take revenge.

Through Dwight’s characterization, Blue Ruin subverts the typical thriller featuring the “badass” lead. Dwight is lanky, clumsy and not the brightest of revenge-seekers. His idea to take an arrow out of his leg with his car door doesn’t turn out the way it would’ve in a Tarantino movie; it just gets him to the hospital. Since he is not a typical “badass” hero, Dwight makes the movie feel more authentic and relatable. In Dwight we can see a reflection of ourselves, wondering if this could be one of our (mis-)adventures, as opposed to that of a muscle man like Vin Diesel. It also makes the experience of watching him go through all his strife a thrilling process. We don’t know if he is going to come out alive in the end, and that feeling of not-knowing makes Blue Ruin a tense movie to watch.

Blue Ruin‘s structure also defies the typical structure of a revenge film. Dwight kills the killer (or so he thinks) in the first ten minutes of the film — this is where most revenge movies would end, but Blue Ruin begins here. In the cinema, audiences expect to stop at the revenge and be happy with all the blood. But we forget that, in reality, revenge is a two-way street that often leads to ongoing streaks of violent retaliations and messy side consequences. It’s not as simple as killing someone and cuing rock music in the background with rolling credits. There are more parameters involved, further complications that arise, more deaths to come.

Blue Ruin succeeds in telling us a down-to-earth, authentic-feeling story even with the gory elements in its narrative. Overall, the film makes its onscreen moments and plot twists feel as real as possible. There are no over-the-top knife battles and no kidnapping of loved ones to sabotage the lead’s main objective; it’s plain and simple revenge. The deaths are not at random, the consequences feel logical, and the story is riveting with plausible situations that psychologically resonate for the viewer. We are led into the head of this atypical protagonist— not even one that is easily likable— and are made to empathize with him, even root for him as he goes on a near suicide quest to finish a story that has long been left unfinished. Because of all these storytelling choices, the movie tilts towards the realistic drama genre more than it conforms to the revenge movie conventions.

Blue Ruin puts us in the shoes of a killer, and it succeeds in showing us how things might “really” go if you’re not a lethal assassin but a regular person. Dwight’s sister (Amy Hargreaves) says, “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not, you’re weak,” upon seeing him return home after ages away. The actors play the psychological reality of losing someone to a brutal death with exceptional honesty. They capture how one reacts to loss and the emotions of leaving one’s hometown only to return to bury personal demons—all subjects rarely portrayed with such depth and nuance in revenge films. Taking revenge is easy (the movies tell us), but dealing with the consequences and facing the music that follows is something that we usually forget. Blue Ruin reminds us that our past never truly goes away, however much we run from it. We can try to make amends for what we’ve done, but after certain deeds and events, things can never return to normal. Blue Ruin questions the very nature of the revenge genre, making other entries to the genre feel trivial and superficial, and the film makes a valid argument for the human cost and sacrifice required in any act of revenge.