Blue Ruin is unwatchable, bloody – but, from what I saw, rather good

Plus: a quiet portrait of the 90-year-old photographer Jane Brown that benefits from not showing anyone gouging out an arrowhead from their own thigh

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

Blue Ruin

Key Cities

Looking for Light: Jane Bown

Key Cities

Blue Ruin is a low-budget yet highly accomplished revenge thriller although whether you have the stomach for it is another matter. I do not have a strong stomach, as we know, and as I braced myself for the next startlingly bloody burst of violence, having yet to recover from the last startlingly bloody burst of bloody violence, I was often just longing for it all to be over. I like excellent film-making as much as the next person but, ideally, I would also like to be able to watch it.

Stuff you don’t need to know but might like to: this has been a huge festival hit, winning several prizes, and much acclaim for its writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, who had previously only made corporate videos and one small feature (Murder Party). Also: it was shot in 30 days, and funded by a raid on his wife’s retirement fund, his credit card, and a last-minute Kickstarter campaign. And: it is so low-budget he used his parents’ house as one of the locations. Finally: Saulnier is obviously special, although why he can’t say it with flowers, or softly falling snow, I don’t know.

The ten-minute opening is virtually wordless and extremely special, an absolute masterclass in showing and not telling; in creating feeling while seemingly doing nothing. We simply watch a homeless man, with straggly hair and bushy beard, living somewhere along the Delaware shore, search through bins for food, steal into houses to have a wash, avoid people and sleep in his rusted, beat-up, old blue Pontiac; the ‘Blue Ruin’ of the title, I’m guessing. This is Dwight, as played with fantastic delicacy by Macon Blair, who infuses the character with such soulful longing, and such a sense of loss, we immediately find we are on his side, even though his side, it will turn out, is possibly no better than anyone else’s.


So he’s silently going about his business when he’s approached by a policewoman and asked to accompany her to the station, at which point the film puts its foot on the accelerator. The policewoman reveals that   someone called ‘Wade Cleland’ has just been released from prison. We don’t know who Wade is or what his connection with Dwight might be, only that Dwight must steal a car battery and petrol and a gun and speed back to his hometown in Virginia. Here, he waits outside the prison to see Wade leave, follows him, and does something so terrible to him in a toilet I think I actually yelped out loud. It’s such sudden, jolting, graphic violence it makes Quentin Tarantino look like a total loser and idiot. I understood that, in its way, Blue Ruin is mocking the fetishisation of violence in vigilante films — that this violence is a comment on almost everything that’s starred Sylvester Stallone — but the trouble with violence as comment is that you still have to endure it.

From what I saw (maybe as much as 70 per cent?; I really did try), Saulnier is a gifted cinematographer, achieving mood through light, and darkening skies, and also a gifted storyteller, handing out clues sparingly, to keep us always on our toes. We meet his sister, whom he has put in jeopardy, as the Cleland clan, Wade’s family, are now intent on retaliation. (They won’t go to the police, preferring to keep it ‘in house’.) So it’s cat and mouse, as Dwight, a decent person propelled by a distorted view of justice, and what he feels he has lost, tries to keep ahead of the game. He is not the most competent assassin, or the most willing, and there are funny moments. Just as I yelped out loud, I also laughed. If I happened to actually be watching at that time.

Eventually, it paints itself into a corner, plot-wise, and is forced to provide the only logical conclusion possible, which is both appalling and messy. I repeat: this is film that always knows exactly what it is doing, and why, and even displays a literary sensibility, but whether you have the stomach for it has to be a different matter.

Now, Looking for Light: Jane Bown, which benefited hugely from not showing anyone gouging out an arrowhead from their own thigh, for whatever reason. Instead, it’s a quiet, moving portrait of Jane Bown, the longstanding Observer photographer who has taken all those iconic pictures you know — Samuel Beckett emerging from the dark; Björk with face in hands; Mick Jagger laughing — but probably didn’t know she’d taken. She is now approaching 90, and isn’t the most forthcoming interviewee. ‘Does that bring back any memories?’ asks her son at her father’s grave. ‘No,’ she says. But eventually a picture emerges of a wonderful photographer — who, as Edna O’Brien puts it, ‘got what was behind the eyes’ — as well as a fascinating woman with a difficult background and an attachment to the Observer which means she still goes in once a week, just to sit in the foyer. It’s sensitive and affectionate and although, cinema-wise, it’s a bit blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, it is out on DVD shortly ( Also, no one gets half their head blown off.

(PS: As The Other Woman is currently topping the US box office, I did feel honour-bound to top myself but, luckily, I managed to talk myself down at the last minute. It was most fortunate I happened to be around that day.)

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