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!

Beat Sheet of Chinatown: A WRITER’S Film Noir

Starting a new story from scratch is something every writer should do at least a few times a year. I know, with all the revisions and under-developed stories and other obligations, you don’t have time to, but this is what we do. We can’t afford not to.  I typically start by watching a few films in related genres, sometimes making beat sheets of them.

Chinatown, written by Robert Towne, is as old now as film noir was when it was a neo-noir back in the 70s. Film noir is not a genre I love, to be honest. It demands too big a suspension of disbelief for too little payoff. Its heroes are always depressing. When I read a new homage to the genre – and I have come across more than a few young writers who can’t shake it – it feels like male fantasies of schlubby, squirmy guys hooking up with gorgeous women and then losing the women and learning that the world sucks even worse than they thought, and that’s saying a lot, because they thought it was a moral cesspool already.

Jack Gittes and Mrs. Mulwray.

Jake Gittes and Mrs. Mulwray.

Although Chinatown ends with a botched ghetto rendezvous by night, its return to the film noir disposition is almost a letdown after it’s taken you to so many other places. It has lots in common with the conspiracy and political thrillers of its day, and the ones since: A hero who’s unquestionably a decent guy stumbles into a conspiracy, pries deeper, discovers it’s much vaster than he thought, gets tempted to let it go, but circumstances including lust (and his own good heart) force him to try setting things right.

You almost have to just call Chinatown a film noir out of convenience, because it’s hard to pin it to any sub-genre. Thriller sub-genres are defined by the nexus of evil. Is it a political thriller, a corporate thriller, a crime thriller, a supernatural thriller? As I stared at the blank page this morning, I figured there are probably more psychopathic killer scripts than there are psychopathic killers, and I refuse to play that game, even though I see why so many writers choose it: It’s so easy!

Legend has it that director Roman Polanski chose the Chinatown ending we all know. If the writer had his way, the heroine/love interest would have killed the villain. If it were a straight-up conspiracy thriller, it would end with a fight to the death between the hero and the villain. Instead it retreats into film noir (il)logic. I always say that a film’s denouement belongs to the director: by that time it’s out of our hands. Up to that point, though, Chinatown is Robert Towne’s film, because he concocted a plot so economical and evil so pure and yet believable: murder, corruption, incest, and…real estate!

Chinatown Beat Sheet

Private investigator Jake Gittes is kind to a client named Curly while breaking the news to him about his wife having an affair.

Gittes gets hired by a Mrs. Mulwray to trail her husband. He tries refusing.

Gittes follows Mulwray’s very boring life watching reservoir runoff. Mulwray is the Water Department chief engineer who is blocking the construction of a reservoir. The one juicy bit Gittes’ team manages to get is a bunch of photos of an argument between Mulwray and a gray-haired guy.

Finally catches Mulwray on an apparent date with his mistress.

It’s a tabloid sensation. In a barbershop: Gittes tells off a stranger who disrespects his occupation.

The real Mrs. Mulwray visits him, and serves him legal papers.

Now Gittes wonders who set Mulwray up. He tries visiting Mulwray at the Water Department. Snoops, finds evidence he is keeping tabs on runoff from reservoirs.

Mulwray’s water dept associate Yelburton comes to shoo Gittes away, and Gittes steals some of Yelburton’s cards. Sees that the department has hired a security thug named Mulvahill whom he knows from his police days.

Gittes tries visiting Mulwray at home, and talks to the Mrs instead. He lets on that he’s trying to figure out who set them up. She agrees to drop the suit.

Lies his way into a restricted reservoir (using Yelburton’s card). Finds his old frenemy Escobar from the police dept there. Mulwray has just died by drowning.

Escobar’s line of questioning Mrs.Mulwray indicates that they figure it is a suicide. She hastily decides not to deny that SHE’s the one who hired Gittes in the first place: Now she is  partners with him in a sense.

At the morgue, Gittes hears that hobos who sleep in the rivers and pipes are drowning.

Talks to a Mexican boy in the river bed about how it rises at odd times: more evidence that that’s what Mulwray was trying to figure out.

At dusk, he jumps the fence into the reservoir, nearly gets swept away by water. Gets his nose sliced by water dept thugs.

Gets a call from an Ida Sessions – the original, fake Mrs. Mulwray – who advises him to scan the obituaries for whoever hired her to set up Mulwray.

Meets Mrs. Mulwray for lunch. Refuses payment from her. (Also finds out her maiden name is Cross.) Lays it on the line: Her husband got killed because he had figured out a vast coverup of water-wasting.  He leaves dramatically before she can tell him more.

He stalks Yelburton at the water dept office. Sees photos of a Noah Cross on the wall, learns that old Mr. Cross and Mulwray started the water dept as a private company.

Goes directly to Yelburton, and threatens to bring his story to the press…invites Yelburton to help him nail the big interests who are behind the scheme.

Mrs. Mulwray visits. She’s still hiding something, but they finally agree that he’ll work for her. She gets tweaky when he talks about her father Noah Cross.

He visits Noah Cross at his ranch way out in Malibu. (To get there he meets one of his people at a private fishing club called the Albacore Club.) Cross says he is trying to protect his daughter and offers to double Gittes’ pay if he’ll find Ida Sessions, ostensibly to find out who’s behind the crime…seems like bullshit.

Gittes searches public records. Discovers that much of the land in the western valley is being bought up…but by whom?

Visits an orange farm to follow up on Yelburton’s story, that the water runoff is explicable because the water dept is giving some water to orange growers.  He gets assaulted by the farmers, learns that they’re being harassed by the water department.

Mrs. Mulwray picks him up. Comparing the land sale names to the obituaries, he discovers that the land in the valley is being bought up, on paper, by the poor residents of an old folks home.

At that home, one of the ladies is making a tapestry with a hunk of fabric from the Albacore Club: the home is a charity of the rich social club, and the club members are in turn using the old folks as a front for their con. Thugs come to get him, but he fights his way out, and Mrs. Mulwray swoops in in her car to rescue him.

She redresses his wound. They sleep together. She asks him about his time with the police force in Chinatown (with Escobar); he vaguely tells her about a time he inadvertently hurt a woman.

He follows Mrs. Mulwray on a secret errand. She appears to have her husband’s mistress captive in a house. He confronts her, and she explains that the woman is her sister.

He gets a call saying that Ida Sessions wants to see him, and is given an address. Next day, he goes there and finds her murdered; Detective Escobar is there, and they spar. Escobar doesn’t buy his story about the water conspiracy, and demands that Gittes bring Mrs M in for murder. Key bit of evidence: Mulwray had salt water in his lungs.

Gittes goes looking for Mrs M and discovers eye glasses in their fish pond, which is salt water!

He finds her in the hideout house, and calls Escobar with the address. Demands to know what’s up with the mistress, and she finally levels with him: She was not Mulwray’s mistress but her own daughter/sister, the product of her own affair with her father when she was a teenager.  (She corrects him: the glasses are NOT Mulwray’s, they’re bifocals.)

He sends her off to her butler’s house in Chinatown and gets his guys to say they’ll meet him there in 2 hours.

Escobar comes, and Gittes bullshits him by taking them to Curly’s house and escaping out the back door. He hires Curly to come by Chinatown that night and take the ladies to a boat they can use to get to Mexico.

Surmising that Old Man Cross is the killer – since the glasses found in the salt water pond were his bifocals – he lures Cross to the Mulwray house by saying he found his daughter/granddaughter for him.

Cross takes him to Chinatown at gun point seeming like he is just trying to get his daughter/granddaughter; when they arrive, the cops are there, to arrest Gittes.

Mrs. Mulwray confronts her dad, pulls a gun on him, and gets shot by the police. Cross gets possession of his daughter/granddaughter, and Gittes gets told to go home.

A Hijacking: Real Life Piracy

Years ago, as a location assistant for a New York producer with some legit independent credits, I arrived on set, and was handed a manilla envelope. My mission: drive to Brooklyn to deliver a check for the previous day’s location. We’d gone a day over, and I knew that negotiations on a fair price had been tough.

While crossing the Manhattan Bridge, my cell phone rang. “Here’s the deal,” my boss said. “There is no check in that envelope. You have to tell him that we’re not paying him. He didn’t get it in writing, so fuck him.” Traffic was nasty, so I had plenty of time to muse about what might go wrong. Was the landlord a wannabe mafioso who might break my thumb? Smash the windows of my rented Taurus? But I also had time to psych myself up: He was a developer evicting second-generation tenants of Park Slope brownstones to polish them and sell them to Yuppies. That’s why he had empty units to rent to us. The extra day meant zero to him. So yeah. Fuck him.

I arrived at a supermarket parking lot to make the “delivery” and found, not the face of evil, but Isaac the nineteen-year-old nephew. A young Hasid with no beard yet, I thought he was going to hyperventilate in my passenger seat. “A deal is a deal!” “My uncle’s going to be so mad at me.” I did what any caring person would do. I said, “Isaac, you’re right. My boss is an asshole. I wish I could help you.”

That’s piracy! When negotiations about money devolve from “Here’s what’s fair” straight through “Here’s what I can get elsewhere on the open market” to “Here’s your only choice, and I’ve got force to back that up.” “Tell your uncle he was insufficiently cutthroat yesterday,” I might as well have told Isaac. “If he’s so dumb that he didn’t stand at the fusebox demanding payment in advance, then he’s a pathetic louse whose trust we don’t need.” And that’s why I’m a writer, not a producer.

Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) in Tobias Lindholm’s "A Hijacking."

Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) in Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking.”

Writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s film A Hijacking, like most thrillers, is all about men behaving badly. In this case the context – a Danish ship seized by pirates on the Indian Ocean – automatically makes it a political comment about the inhumanity of world capitalism. Fifteen minutes in, you realize that you won’t get to see the obvious bit of action: the Somali pirates storming the ship. In its place you saw Peter (Søren Malling), the CEO of the shipping company back in Copenhagen, deploy some macho business tactics of his own (“macho” in a Kierkegaardian way, perhaps), both toward his business adversaries and his own employees, who rely on his bad-ass negotiating skills.

It’s a delight to see a screenwriter hitting his narrative marks without belaboring the obvious grander point. The nuanced characters, the psychopathic misplacement of responsibility – “I’m not a pirate, I’m trying to help you” – and the utter senselessness of violence, it’s all there, but you never feel like you’re being preached to. You just keep wondering what will happen next, with a sick feeling that it’s about to go very wrong.

Not much to say that the critics, especially Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, haven’t already said, except that this film is a study in trimming the fat from a narrative. Only once did it feel like Lindholm was pumping up the tension artificially – when the CEO’s board of directors gave him a deadline to finalize a deal with the pirates – and I didn’t even mind that. Every action that you assume is merely there for a bit of characterization eventually pays off a second time, whether it’s the CEO’s habit of dismissing people around him when he wants privacy, or the other lead’s affection for his wife back home.

I say “the other lead,” because, among its subtleties, A Hijacking forces you to spend a lot more time away from the protagonist than most thrillers. Its hero is the likable cook on the ship, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), about as likely a face of the evils of global capitalism as Isaac’s back in Brooklyn. He looks like someone you’d meet in the beer line at a folk festival. His objective is to get through the ordeal, while his affection for his wife gets exploited by the pirates to turn the screws on the CEO.

Deep inside both men’s resolve to get through the hijacking is their respective ways of dealing with their spouses’ demands to spend some time with them. Capitalism, the film suggests, is this machinery all around us that we engage in to bring some bread home for the family. We do it for them, and some of us are so skilled at it that it sours even our dealings with our families, while others, the sweeter ones among us, get beaten by it and go home to that family as a refuge.

It’s easily the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.