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‘Blue Ruin,’ a Gory Fever Dream of Vengeance, Deepens the Chill at Sundance

Blue Ruin

SPIN is in Park City, Utah, traversing snow and cutting queues to bring you reviews of the next big films (and flops) as they make their Sundance Film Festival 2014 debut.

Sometimes solitude is safest, because hell is other people. Dwight, an unthreatening but resourceful vagrant, lives in a ratted-out car parked in the middle of nowhere. His beard unkempt, his clothes the spoils of clothesline hit-and-runs, he gets by on a freegan diet of dumpster dives and keeps clean in the bathtubs of temporarily unoccupied houses. But Dwight’s precarious lifestyle is threatened when he learns of one man’s successful appeal to be released from prison. Dwight, wild-eyed with dread, knew this day would come, and that a plan would be set in motion.

Written and directed by Brooklyn-based filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin is a horrifying tale of avenging the past. Under that Galifianakian beard, Dwight, played by longtime Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair, is a doughy, kindly faced man forced to commit increasingly horrible acts in order to protect an estranged sister and her two young daughters. The role is largely silent; after years spent in seclusion, Dwight isn’t used to conversation. But Blair has mastered the shit-your-pants look of terror. With just a trembling hand clasped over his mouth to stifle his gasps of fear, Dwight’s white-knuckled dread is visceral and terrifying.

And that’s about all there is to say without giving away the many twists and spots of horror-grade gore that powers Blue Ruin‘s forward engine. One of its principle pleasures is how the narrative slowly and deliberately reveals itself. 

Saulnier, a cinematographer first by trade, embodies the true definition of indie filmmaking. He funded this latest project — following 2007’s Slamdance-winning satire Murder Party, also starring Blair — through a combination of Kickstarter crowdsourcing and retirement savings. Blue Ruin came to international acclaim at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize. Since then, it’s taken honors at Marrakech, Gijón, Hawaii, Tallinn, and Virginia film festivals. Now it’s come to Sundance.

Focused narrowly on one man’s harrowing journey to correct the past, Blue Ruin carries the compact feeling of a short. That’s a testament, not a slight, to its harrowing efficiency.