In the universe of the action film, revenge is the ultimate motivator for violence. For years, cinema has turned to it as a and reliable catalyst for conflict, relying on the simple morality and charged empathy that stories of retribution carry on their shoulders as a way to elevate the stakes of movie conflict. From Michael Winner's blisteringly problematic Death Wish (1974) to Quentin Tarantino's stylish and self-aware Kill Bill duology, vengeance has become one of the pillars of action cinema. In so doing, however, it has lost much of its energy and impact.
Think for a moment about a hypothetical action film. This film markets itself on its hero taking back what's his, getting payback for some vague but gruesome wrong perpetrated against him and those about whom he cares. "It's Personal," the hypothetical poster blares. In all likelihood, this make-believe film would seem pretty run of the mill to most people: untextured, cliched, aggressively conventional. Even that tagline, which in many ways angles directly towards the reasons that revenge films are supposed to appeal to us -- this is conflict based around YOUR agency, threatening the things YOU care about, that only YOU can protect -- seems frail and thoughtless. The niche of the action genre oriented around the possibility of personal heroism in service of a personal morality, has become comically impersonal.
This litany of complaining and over-analyzing, though, serves as the foundation of Blue Ruin -- directed by Jeremy Saulnier, and released in theaters and on VOD services a few days ago -- and that film's ultimate brilliance. Starring Macon Blair, it manages to be both a startlingly and hauntingly bare-bones genre film, and a thoughtful, lush exploration of the nuances and complications of the revenge film genre, whose recent entries have seemed so pompously lacking in nuance.
Plot-wise, there is not much to say about the film. It concerns an act of revenge and the fallout of that act, which takes the form of myriad other acts of revenge that bloom grisly over the course of the film's 90 minute runtime. Its "hero" is graceless and dumb; its villains little smarter. He is not the domestic dad turned special forces hurricane of the Taken films, nor even the unconscionably and inarguably wronged party of such films like The Brave One. He is not built for violence, and he doesn't quite have the eye or the stomach for it. His rage is palpable, but not fully capable of crystallizing into the ferocious edge of his genre forebearers. He is a person wanting of recompense, if not necessarily fully capable or deserving of it.
In this, Blue Ruin reclaims the human edge that the revenge film originally sought to appeal to, making the conflict personal, and the execution clumsy. The man behind the gun here is not fully aware of what he is doing. He is not merciless, mad, or mechanical in his payback. And when he realizes that his settling the score may open up a whole new scorecard for others, he becomes, in his own way, the monster that he was chasing from the very start.
With beautiful cinematography, gut-wrenching and understated performances, and a sense of compassionate awareness for both its characters and its predecessors, Blue Ruin makes the case for the revenge film as human exploration more so than karma porn. It leaves its morals at the door and enters the broken world of a broken man. By the time it leaves, it has done nothing to tidy the place up.