Blue Ruin represents an interesting shift in the way films are produced these days. Like the Veronica Mars film released last month, Jeremy Saulnier’s film was crowd funded through Kickstarter. That makes this a passion project, which is very clear within the opening minutes of the film.

Blue Ruin was written and directed by Saulnier, who also provided the spare and still cinematography in this feature, which is, technically, a revenge thriller. The story concerns Dwight (Macon Blair), a man who has been living as a homeless man in Delaware for nearly twenty years. He spends his time at the beach, collecting discarded food from stands and boardwalk restaurants, reading and intermittingly breaking into people’s homes to use their shower and eat their cereal while they’re out. It’s a static existence. Dwight’s doe eyes are sunken by bags beneath them, his thick hair and beard are long and unkempt, and he sleeps in his beaten, dusty Pontiac, which is as much a character in this movie as it is a statement on Dwight himself.

Dwight’s been living as a bum since his parents were murdered by a neighbor, Wade Cleland, Jr., who was serving a life term in prison, but has now been released after seventeen years. Dwight’s quiet nature has earned him at least one friend in this small beach town, a kindly police officer who received a newspaper from Virginia (how and by whom she received this paper remains a mystery) which explains Cleland’s release. She breaks the news to Dwight carefully and empathically, though her words are lost by a ringing purpose that has stirred something raw in Dwight’s soul and comes in the form of a truth: there is no justice in this life. He strikes back for home and vengeance.

I know, you’ve heard of this before. Film and literature have given us this plot and these characters, in one form or another, time and again. However, while the foundation is familiar, the structure that is built in Blue Ruin is one we haven’t seen before. Macon Blair isn’t the actor you’d cast for a film like this, nor is Dwight a protagonist you’d write for this genre. Blair is more Paul Giamatti than Vin Diesel, he’s rounded and small and his shoulders are virtually non-existent. Likewise, the story is more meditative and concerned with consequences; it’s more akin to The Merry Gentleman than Death Wish, and Jacobean in the vein of Hamlet and Revenger’s Tragedy than torture porn blood festivals like I Spit on Your Grave.

Dwight is thoughtful, soft-spoken, meek, and despite his attempts, particularly incompetent at virtually everything. His life has clearly fallen short and he seeks revenge not so much for the life that he could have had, but for his family, for the universe to be balanced, even if he has to nudge the universe along to get there. There are familiar moments here—the stealing of a gun, the paying of goods with bloodied money—but usually these scenes are made to show the stoic yet potent intimidation the revenger is capable of, scaring a shopkeeper with a cold stare from asking any questions. Here, the movie chooses to show something more realistic: Dwight and the shopkeeper exchange awkward glances, Dwight goes to say something, but groans and just walks away; when he finally finds a gun, he succeeds only in breaking the piece in an attempt to get the safety lock off.

Those scenes are played for laughs, and as dreary as the film is with its long steady shots, hopeless glances and whispered dialogue, there are comic moments that are dark and utterly funny. From his physical shakiness to his incompetence at violence or shutting off flashlights, Dwight is an unlikely character who would probably be more at home in a different movie. That isn’t a slight; it’s a compliment to Saulnier’s vision and Blair’s performance. It’s rare for film to handle dark comedy or dark drama well, and even harder to balance those things in the same movie.

The film is undeniably tense despite Dwight’s sometimes funny encounters with the Cleland family. Dwight’s reunion with his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) is particularly taxing. She’s a single mother of two young daughters, one of whom is sick. She has a job that’s time consuming and it is clear that she could have used a hand throughout all of this but Dwight was nowhere, he had given up. The reality of Dwight’s act of killing Wade crushes Sam after that immediate burst of joy at knowing that the hick was dead. She worries about the Cleland family’s reprisal, she worries for the safety of her daughters, and she can’t forgive her brother for his selfishness and as she put it “his weakness.”

Therein is the point of Blue Ruin. There’s no dignity in the actions these characters take. There’s just subterfuge and regret with the occasional spray of blood. Dwight finds no relief in murdering Wade. He only sees the consequence of a violent act: the need for reciprocal violence. He learns that it wasn’t Wade, but Wade’s daddy that killed his parents. Dwight’s dad was in love and sleeping with Kris, the Cleland matriarch (played by a severe and unrecognizable Eve Plumb). Wade, Sr. killed Dwight’s dad purposefully (Dwight’s mom was collateral damage), and it was decided that Wade Jr. would take the fall since Wade Sr. was dying of cancer. Carl Cleland (Kevin Kolak) drives the indignity of it all home: “The guy with the gun gets to tell the truth…just know that man that killed your parents didn’t die by your hands. He smoked and he drank…and he died a free man.” This blood feud was for nothing; innocent people were the ones getting killed, the guilty were free; they were all just trying to look out for family.

Dwight’s unpleasant little war finds him ready to surrender to the rest of the Cleland family if his sister and her kids wouldn’t be hurt. He even attempts to recover some dignity for the dead, respectfully burying Carl on his family’s hunting property. He eventually leaves a message on the Cleland answering machine and speaks to the idea of trying to make this all even-steven (“That’s two of yours and two of mine”) and he only takes action again when it becomes apparent that Sam and her kids are targets. Even then, the whole thing ends in a mess; there is a last revelation that is melodramatic but handled quietly. It can’t help but make a loud noise like a gunshot but it is necessary: not only is it Dwight’s one last attempt at mercy but in his dying breath realizes the final cyclicality that comes from being a survivor among dead family members; in the end, the only thing Dwight did was create another Dwight. A wandering young lost soul just walking the trail.

While played at film festivals to positive reviews and prestigious awards, it was only given a limited release to general audiences in America in April of 2014. Blue Ruin can be most easily seen streaming on Amazon.com and on VOD.

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