Whether it’s Clint Eastwood with a double-barreled shotgun or Uma Thurman wielding a samurai sword, movie heroes have been searching for vengeance ever since cinema began. Over the years, filmmakers have created some truly memorable revenge thrillers, but the “revenge” genre also has accumulated quite a few tropes and clichés along the way. That’s why Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (2013) is so incredibly refreshing. It takes your standard revenge movie and flips everything on its head.
The plot is simple. Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a bum, living out of his rusty Pontiac and scavenging through trash cans, until he learns his parents’ killer is being released from jail. Suddenly, Dwight is snapped out of his zombified existence and decides to take the law into his own hands. In your standard revenge thriller, we’d follow the protagonist as he or she hunts the villain up until the final spectacular showdown. In Blue Ruin, Dwight kills his enemy in the first twenty minutes. The rest of the movie follows our hobo-hero as he deals with the fallout from his horrible decision, battling bad guys who want their own revenge against our schlubby protagonist.
The key word here is “schlubby.” Unlike most modern action heroes, Dwight isn’t an assassin (like “The Bride” in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004)), an ex-soldier (like Maximus in Gladiator (2000) or Richard in Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)), or even a reanimated corpse (think The Crow (1994)). Dwight is an ordinary guy, an everyman, and while some films do focus on average people thrust into insane circumstances, these heroes quickly become proficient killers, unstoppable forces of death and destruction, like the protagonists of Death Wish (1974), Oldboy (2003, 2013), and The Count of Monte Cristo (2002 et al.). They also tend look incredibly awesome while Dwight looks like he works in accounting.
Blue Ruin rips that traditional tough guy façade into pieces. Dwight isn’t suave, macho or cool under pressure. In the film’s opening scene, he accidentally leaves a key piece of evidence at the scene of the crime. After slashing the tires of an enemy’s car, he’s later forced to use the same exact vehicle to make his escape. He doesn’t know how to remove a gun’s protective lock, and when it comes time to perform the standard self-surgery, Dwight totally chickens out and rushes to the nearest hospital. In addition to his ineptitude, Dwight is constantly fretting, always worrying, never calm or collected. It’s a far cry from the heroes played by Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson.
Perhaps most importantly, we never get a sense Dwight is doing the right thing. His violence only begets more violence, and his bullets tear real holes through real bodies. Early on in the film, one of the characters calls Dwight “weak” because he’s unable to let go of the past. Instead of justifying the hero’s quest and shirking the ethical implications of revenge, Blue Ruin faces these issues head on, and by so doing, becomes the anti-Taken, the anti-Man on Fire, the anti-revenge thriller revenge thriller.