Magazine June 2, 2014, Issue

Everyman on the Vigilante Trail

Macon Blair in Blue Ruin (The Lab of Madness)

Have you ever watched a vigilante movie, one of those primally satisfying flicks in which the ordinary, law-abiding citizen is pushed too far and takes the law into his own hands, and thought, “I wonder if I could pull that off?”

Probably you have — you’re reading a conservative magazine, after all. And maybe, if you’re like me, you’ve even let yourself ponder how exactly you’d manage it . . . where you’d get the necessary weaponry, how you’d keep the police off your scent, how you would protect the people closest to you while you went about dealing out capital-R Retribution . . .

Such fantasies — and the gulf separating them from reality — supply the hook for Blue Ruin, a moody little thriller about a vigilante who is actually ordinary, actually an everyman, and not just an action hero in suburbanite’s clothing. The film is the work of two friends, the director and screenwriter Jeremy Saulnier and his actor pal Macon Blair, who plays the lead. I’m confident you haven’t heard of either of them before now; I’m also confident that you’ll be seeing more from both of them soon enough.

Blair plays Dwight, whom we meet first as a drifter, living out of his (blue) wreck of a car on Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach, and slipping into people’s cottages to bathe when the opportunity presents itself. He has a heavy beard and a tattered wardrobe, and he snacks out of dumpsters. He’s also clearly well known to the local police, one of whom summons him to the station — not to be arrested, but to be informed, in a safe space, of a development back in the world he left behind: The man who murdered both his parents, the scion of a rural clan called the Clelands, is being released from prison.

The movie declines to tell us whether this is something Dwight was waiting for or something that comes as a surprise. In either case, the news puts an end to his life as a drifter, and puts him on the road back to civilization. And there’s no question what he’s going back to do: Without showing much in the way of soul-searching or self-doubt, he sets out to exact revenge and to kill the man who destroyed his family 14 years before.

Unfortunately for Dwight, vigilante justice requires skills and qualities that he doesn’t obviously possess. He steals a gun and then discovers that he can’t get the lock off the trigger; he slices his palm wide open trying to knife a car’s tires; he loses his keys at the moment he needs them for a getaway. And when he finally succeeds in drawing Cleland blood, his incompetence leaves an easy trail to follow, which brings the threat of vengeance and ruin down, not just on him, but on his sister and her children.

This is a story that in different hands might be played for black comedy and grim, disbelieving laughs. As a portrait of the sheer difficulty of murder, Blue Ruin has something in common with the Coen brothers’ earliest film, Blood Simple. And Dwight — first absurdly bearded, then shaved and moon-faced, almost babyish in mien — is the kind of character that the Coens would create, and mock, and happily pile indignities upon.

But Saulnier’s script avoids the registers of comedy: It recognizes the absurdity of its protagonist’s situation, his mix of haplessness and weirdness, and yet it pushes us close to him, induces us to identify with him, instead of pulling back and letting us laugh darkly at his various catastrophes. When he takes a crossbow bolt in his leg and then tries, like a character in an action movie, to cut it out himself, we know how the attempt will end (spoiler: in the hospital), but we don’t feel pity or contempt; we’ve come too far with him to pull back now, and there’s nothing to do but keep on going.

The final destination is a bloody shootout that’s a little more clichéd than the rest of the script. But before that end arrives we get a few wonderful scenes with the sister (Amy Hargreaves), as she comes to grips with what her brother has done to both of them; a great little supporting turn by Devin Ratray, as a long-lost friend of Dwight’s who knows his way around a long-range rifle; and three near-perfect action sequences — or, more aptly, three build-up-to-action sequences, in which the tension is more memorable than the release.

“I’d forgive you if you were crazy,” Dwight’s sister says as she drags her kids off into hiding. “But you’re not — you’re weak.” The movie, I would say, does not entirely agree with her; it doesn’t know quite what to make of its strange, damaged vigilante. But its ambivalent sympathy for its blundering Mr. Vengeance will leave you with a sentiment that you’re unlikely to carry away from most revenge flicks: There but for the grace of God go I.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Politics & Policy

Tall Cotton

Hot Springs, Ark. — ‘I picked up running in the Army,” says Representative Tom Cotton from the backseat of a car as we drive out of Hot Springs on April ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Reinhart at Home

One of America’s last literary lions has stopped writing novels, and hardly anybody has noticed. “Around age 85, I did write a 24th novel, really more of a novella,” Thomas Berger ...
Politics & Policy

A Green Scam

In this corner, we have a human-rights lawyer representing the interests of indigenous people in the Amazon residing in a remote corner of Ecuador polluted by the by-products of oil ...
Politics & Policy

A Christo Garland

I’d known for years that Christopher Buckley was an amusing man. His novel Thank You for Smoking (1994), for example, had me crying, yes crying, with laughter. But it wasn’t ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Into the Woods “Public-Land Colonialism,” by Travis Kavulla (May 19 issue), does a good job of describing Cliven Bundy’s battle with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). However, it gives the ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Are we even sure Boko Haram is on Twitter? ‐ Boko Haram, the killer Islamist cult of northern Nigeria, kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls and threatens, in a video narrated by ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

GOD’S BENEDICTION God’s benediction — earliest of rays – Turning it a bit more wan And drowsy, slipped across the cherished face, To make it sleep with greater calm. Without a doubt, it seemed to ...

Most Popular

Why Trump’s Losing

President Trump pulled an inside straight to win in 2016, and now he needs another one. The good news for Trump is that his approval rating has stopped falling recently. The bad news is that it has stabilized in the low 40s. Election-watcher Harry Enten points out that no president since Harry Truman has won ... Read More

Why Trump’s Losing

President Trump pulled an inside straight to win in 2016, and now he needs another one. The good news for Trump is that his approval rating has stopped falling recently. The bad news is that it has stabilized in the low 40s. Election-watcher Harry Enten points out that no president since Harry Truman has won ... Read More
U.S.

A Stay-at-Home Mom on Her Reasons for Leaving Portland

While covering events (see here and here) in Portland, Ore., National Review writer Luther Abel sat down with Joanna -- a college-educated, stay-at-home mom and now Trump voter -- who feels it is no longer safe or healthy to live there. They discussed the change that has happened in the city politically, the ... Read More
U.S.

A Stay-at-Home Mom on Her Reasons for Leaving Portland

While covering events (see here and here) in Portland, Ore., National Review writer Luther Abel sat down with Joanna -- a college-educated, stay-at-home mom and now Trump voter -- who feels it is no longer safe or healthy to live there. They discussed the change that has happened in the city politically, the ... Read More
U.S.

Baby Please Come Back, Says Andrew Cuomo

Then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg famously described New York City in 2003 as a “luxury product,” and therefore priced accordingly. The price hasn’t changed, except to go up slightly — taxes, rents, everything. But few would argue that the product New York offers remains first-rate. The theaters are closed. The ... Read More
U.S.

Baby Please Come Back, Says Andrew Cuomo

Then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg famously described New York City in 2003 as a “luxury product,” and therefore priced accordingly. The price hasn’t changed, except to go up slightly — taxes, rents, everything. But few would argue that the product New York offers remains first-rate. The theaters are closed. The ... Read More
Law & the Courts

New York’s Lawless NRA Lawsuit

The latest bananas news from the banana republic that is the State of New York: The attorney general, a political enemy of the National Rifle Association, is seeking to have the advocacy organization legally dissolved. The pretext is financial corruption and self-dealing on the part of the NRA’s ... Read More
Law & the Courts

New York’s Lawless NRA Lawsuit

The latest bananas news from the banana republic that is the State of New York: The attorney general, a political enemy of the National Rifle Association, is seeking to have the advocacy organization legally dissolved. The pretext is financial corruption and self-dealing on the part of the NRA’s ... Read More
Elections

Joe Biden’s Authoritarian VP Finalist

Last year, Senator Kamala Harris may have become the first presidential candidate in history to laugh derisively at the idea that the Constitution limits what a president can do. When former Vice President Joe Biden said that her plan for gun control by executive fiat didn’t pass constitutional muster, she ... Read More
Elections

Joe Biden’s Authoritarian VP Finalist

Last year, Senator Kamala Harris may have become the first presidential candidate in history to laugh derisively at the idea that the Constitution limits what a president can do. When former Vice President Joe Biden said that her plan for gun control by executive fiat didn’t pass constitutional muster, she ... Read More