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.

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