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Cannes Film Festival Review: 'Blue Ruin'

Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to 'Murder Party' is a tense, twisty triumph

By William Goss May 21, 2013 9:43AM
Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Jeremy Saulnier's 2007 directorial debut, "Murder Party," was a scrappy, clever horror-comedy about a loner who unwittingly makes himself the target of a high-minded, kill-happy get-together on Halloween. His long-awaited follow-up, "Blue Ruin," ostensibly posits a similar scenario -- a loner inadvertently makes himself the target of a close-knit, gun-toting clan -- but it strikes out with a straight-faced tone, a heartbreaking lead performance and the apparent evolution of Saulnier's talents behind the camera. "Blue Ruin" isn't just a much stronger film than "Murder Party" was; it easily ranks among the best films playing at Cannes so far this year.

Often marginalized in supporting roles, Macon Blair finally lands the lead as Dwight, a homeless man in Maryland who keeps to himself, collecting cans where he finds them, breaking into empty homes for a much-needed bath, forced to dumpster-dive for his meals. His car is his home, a blue Pontiac, rusty and riddled with bullet holes, and when the police come knocking, he isn't surprised. They're not here about the breaking-and-entering, though. The man who killed his parents twenty years before has just been released on a plea bargain, and with wide-eyed panic, Dwight hits the road with revenge in mind.

It isn't long before Dwight finds the man he's looking for, though, and in the wake of an especially sloppy hit, the thrust of the film comes from watching our hero -- a man more clever than he is smart -- attempt to outwit his victim's equally volatile family members and protect what remains of his own kin. (As Dwight's sister, actress Amy Hargreaves has but a few scenes to effectively convey the toll of her brother's absence and their parents' passing.) Writer-director Saulnier lays out Dwight's process with remarkable efficiency, and as each shot informs, every scene holds the tension of plans, however well- or ill-considered, bound to soon go awry.

The violence is unfailingly nasty, the humor suitably dark (with a crossbow wound hitting the sweet spot between those tonal tendencies) and -- most critically -- the human center holds due to Dwight's endearingly short-sighted, continually fallible, yet understandably just mission against those who squandered his own happiness decades before. Initially scraggly in appearance and seemingly more gaunt than ever before, Blair expertly communicates the fear and resourcefulness of his character's daily trials along with the deep-seated sadness, rather than hot-headed righteousness, that keeps him on the warpath in spite of all conventional wisdom that having a gun in hand won't necessarily guarantee that his safety's on.

The result is as misguided a revenge story as any ever told, unburdened by the need to dress up its genre trappings as a heavy-handed parable for more irresponsible real-world retaliations. When Dwight's friend from high school (Devin Ratray) hands Dwight a gun with no questions asked, he makes clear that his help shouldn't be mistaken for support: "This isn't right. This is ugly." "Blue Ruin" is ugly, as much as it's also deliberate, thrilling, spare and sad.

Our coverage of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival will run from May 15th-25th. For current updates, follow William Goss on Twitter, and for more movie news, follow MSN Movies on Facebook and Twitter.
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