The film operates on simple yet true politics. You kill one of ours, we’ll kill one of yours and the man with the gun gets to talk and tell the truth. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier doesn’t necessarily condone these beliefs, but he does understand why others uphold them so vigorously, as these creeds are integral to what drives these characters. What Saulnier is doing here is taking many tropes and stereotypes of American revenge films but putting a new face on them.
We find our protagonist Dwight living on the east coast in his car with a ragged beard. It’s unclear at first whether or not he’s forced this homelessness on himself or not. When he’s informed by a local police officer that the man who killed his parents is set to be released from prison he sets off back to rural Virginia to kill the man.
Where most revenge films spend 3 acts getting to, this film completes the revenge in the first act opening up the film to a whole new realm of possibilities. To talk about where it heads would spoil the wonders of it, but it continually exceeds expectations and veers away from convention at every turn. Saulnier isn’t necessarily disinterested in what brings a man to kill for revenge, but more interested in what happens afterwards.
Macon Blair is gripping as Dwight. Even at his gnarliest he still looks unassumingly bland, essentially the antithesis to Charles Bronson’s rugged Paul Kersey in Death Wish, which makes him an intriguing vessel for all this violence. His eyes are wells of sorrow and pain, his face haunted by unspoken traumas. He gives you almost nothing verbally, but everything you need with his facial and emotive acting to engage with the film. At the most effective of times, he touchingly reminds you that this is not a character type – this is a human. He continues to be resourceful but not immune to faulty mistakes. One character defines Dwight by saying to him: “I would forgive you for this if you were crazy. But you’re not. You’re just weak.”
Saulnier constantly shifts the ground underneath the characters. Revelations and twists of fate keep this story on its toes throughout its taut 90-minute runtime. It is near impossible to predict where the film will go – and that’s great – you want to be just as surprised as Dwight is. This is the type of film that earns your trust early on to pave the way for this spiral into dark decisions and deadly consequences.
Saulnier wears another hat in this film acting as cinematographer, and you begin to wonder if there is anything he can’t do on a set. His provides a real atmosphere to the film, mixing in naturalism with a constant sense of dread creeping around the frame. He keeps his setups focused and tight, visually bringing the tension of his script to life. Saulnier knows how to tell a story visually, giving most of the exposition through the camera instead of dialogue.
Subversive moments of black comedy break through in the film, with the inclusion of Devin Ratray (One of the delightful dimwit twins from last year’s Nebraska) as Ben, an old metalhead friend of Dwight’s who is bordering on being a gun-nut, a notable instance. The violence on screen accents the existing tension in explosive spikes on the film’s pulse, and Saulnier doesn’t allow his characters nor the audience to look away from it.
In 1984 The Coen Brothers started their historic career with the violent and unforgiving Blood Simple. In 2007 Jeff Nichols – an already iconic American filmmaker now – began his career when he released his own homegrown forefather revenge tale debut in Shotgun Stories. I don’t ever want to speak too soon, but I’m confident we’ll look back a few years from now with Jeremy Saulnier and Blue Ruin added to that list of defining works of American filmmaking in the revenge drama.