"Blue Ruin" is a moody, stripped-down and violent action thriller with the most unlikely vigilante one could imagine. Dwight (Macon Blair) is no buffed-up hero, but a soft and skittish loner who has no idea how to hold a gun, much less use it.
Before Dwight begins seeking justice, writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier wants us to understand the kind of guy we're dealing with.
The raw-edged indie, which won the Cannes FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) prize at the 2013 Directors' Fortnight, opens in near silence and stays there for the first act. Moving through a modest house, the camera captures details of the life inside -- the tidy kitchen, the living room books carefully stacked, clearly well read.
Our first sighting of Dwight is of him barreling through that window: wet, naked, scraggly beard, uncut hair, grabbing clothes drying on the line to cover himself as he runs across backyards and the house's unsuspecting residents head to the back door.
Dwight looks to be about 30, though as one of the traumatized homeless you see too often now, it's hard to tell. The camera follows him through his daily routine: rummaging for scraps in trash bins at the pier, occasionally catching a fish along the Delaware shore where his rusted-out blue Pontiac Bonneville is parked, the back seat his bed. When a local cop rousts him one morning, their conversation is the catalyst that snaps Dwight out of his daze.
As with most things about "Blue Ruin," the reasons for the man's sudden focus are cloaked in mystery. A newspaper headline offers a clue -- a double-murder conviction overturned. It puts Dwight on the road, but where or why exactly remains unknown.
"Blue Ruin" is an uneven film, and there are slip-ups along the way, but the tension that settles in slowly like a low-grade fever keeps you with it. The core of the film is a cat-and-mouse game. Outside a prison, Dwight hunches down in the Pontiac, keeping a careful watch. A stretch limo filled with members of what we will soon learn is the Cleland clan pulls close to the gate.
As Dwight follows the limo to a local bar where the family is celebrating, it becomes clear that he has no idea what he is doing. And he's terrified. Of the Clelands, yes, they're a formidable bunch, but the fear seems more rooted in whether he can actually kill a man, even one who destroyed his life.
There is a Hatfields and McCoys-style feud going on between Dwight's family and the Clelands. Most of it plays out in central Virginia, in many cases shot in the haunts where the filmmaker and his boyhood friend and the film's star grew up.
The actors do their part to keep things interesting and intense, including a nice turn by Devin Ratray ("Home Alone") as one of Dwight's old high school buddies with an arsenal to spare.
As with these sorts of feuds, major misunderstandings abound. Old secrets reveal new truths as they make their way to the surface, but they don't stop the killing or the surprises.
* * ½
Rating: R (strong bloody violence and language)
Cast: Macon Blair, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Devin Ratray
Director/writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Running time: 1 hour,