There are few more clichéd genres in American cinema than the revenge thriller with a ‘nothing to lose’ antihero at its core.
But in Blue Ruin sophomore director Jeremy Saulnier breathes new life into the familiar on-screen memes - announcing himself as a major new talent on the indie film scene in the process.
The intriguing twist is to make the main protagonist - who we slowly learn is seeking vengeance for the brutal slaying of his parents - fairly normal. He’s not trained for years in martial arts, hasn’t stored up a cache of heavy artillery or obsessively recorded every facet of the crime that has so affected his life.
Instead we have an initially mute, filthy and straggly-bearded Dwight (Macon Blair), who is living out of his car (the Blue Ruin of the title) courtesy of a chaotic and aimless lifestyle. He learns that the killer, Wade Cleland, is being released from jail and stages a clumsy - though effective - reprisal attack in a bar.
But the execution of Wade has consequences - with his hillbilly family swearing vengeance of their own and declaring war on Dwight and his surviving kin.
A swift shave, shower and change of clothes transforms Dwight outwardly, but there’s never any doubt that he’s still broken inside.
What follows is a film light on dialogue but heavy on atmosphere. An early scene involving Dwight being hunted by an assailant with a crossbow is a masterclass in combining the gruesomely violent with near-slapstick comedy; all the while maintaining the tension in a way which attracts positive comparisons with the Coen Brothers.
The plot constantly wrong-foots the audience, with regular revelations muddying the waters of the already-confused mission further.
The introduction of former school friend and ‘good ol’ boy’ Ben (a scene-stealing Devin Ratray) spices up the second act, though adds a somewhat clumsy comment on gun culture to proceedings.
Superfluous social commentary aside, Saulnier barely puts a foot wrong as he nudges his flawed assassin towards a final showdown via set pieces taking advantage of both rolling rural landscapes and claustrophobic homesteads.
Satisfyingly there’s no final triumphalism, just the certainty that violence is a blunt and inaccurate tool in any quest for redemption.