Blue Ruin: Beyond the Slow Burn

Blue Ruin is damn good, and deserves all the critical love it is getting. Hand it to writer-director Jeremy Saulnier for getting all the story he can from the indie thriller genre and then some.

If the defining thing about thrillers is that the villain drives the story, then I see two main distinctions between the independent thriller and the Hollywood thriller. One’s the moral complexity of the protagonist: Hollywood likes innocents, or banal flaws, whereas indies give you the viewer a harder assignment. The satisfaction you get from A History of Violence or One Hour Photo is in entering the mind of someone who is truly compromised.

Macon Blair in "Blue Ruin."

Macon Blair in “Blue Ruin.”

The other difference is the “slow burn.” When you hear of an independent thriller, you enter the theater expecting 15-20 minutes of character scenes with a few pointed threats and maybe a robbery, or an act of violence rendered efficiently, and then around minute 25, plans go awry and something horrific happens, and now the hero has a problem bigger than he or she imagined. In Fargo, for example, there is a string of character scenes and dramatic setup, with a kidnapping played for laughs inserted in it, and then at minute 29 the bungling crook’s sociopathic partner flips the car and the script. (Apologies for that.)

Blue Ruin is about a drifter who’s waiting when the man who killed his parents gets out of prison. He sets out to kill him, and we’re treated to a few minutes of grand hesitance. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say he processes things a lot faster than Hamlet does.

As I watched it I was acutely aware that the Suspension of Disbelief is one of the main tools we use in crafting the World of the Story. I get script notes – and sometimes, I admit, give script notes – that say “nobody would ever do that.” It’s good to invite that cranky voice in your head to the conference table, but you don’t want it to have the gavel all the time, or even much of the time. Feature films, and especially thrillers, are about outliers. They’re about people doing extraordinary things.

No family that just suffered twenty years of separation from one of its own would choose blood revenge when the law is on its side for once, and it could just call the authorities. Well, this one did, and it had me most of the way. Only for scattered moments here and there did I wonder, “She would call the police now,” or “Now she would call the police,” or “Really, he’s going to bury that body himself?”

Without the suspension of disbelief – without our willingness to go there with the narrative – genres get reduced to procedurals, so I get why we have to just keep going. Blue Ruin goes to show that the storyteller’s best asset in this regard is sheer momentum. Don’t let it slow down enough to let the viewer say, “Stop! I want to go back to some form of reality as I know it.”

I also admire how often Saulnier’s protagonist fails at single narrative steps he’s attempting. One of them – the much talked-about arrow surgery – was too much for my taste, but I deeply appreciated where it ended up, in failure and a just-in-time visit to the E.R. Even critics who like the film are calling Saulnier out on his ending, which is, I’ll admit, packing too much heat. I suppose the pitfall of telling a story that lives on momentum is that it might go one or two steps too far – or that sustaining that kind of rush will raise the viewer’s expectations about the climax.

But that’s getting down to finer points. The indie thriller is easy to do badly and hard to do well, and this guy nailed it.

AND NOW, can we please call a moratorium on the Blue Title craze? Blue Jasmine, Blue Valentine, …the Warmest Color et al. Enough already!

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  1. […] will jockey for the Oscar brand, the cinemas need to show something, so a little indie gem such as Blue Ruin, which had no big names and therefore wasn’t really going to be a contender anyway, can get a […]

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