You’re full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin and you spill out -Tom Waits, 9th & Hennepin
The star-crossed lovers are dead when the movie begins.There was a story of love, adultery and murder left aside. There were years of trauma skipped over, the dissolution of one family and the rallying and recovery of another. Blue Ruin, by Jeremy Saulnier starring Macon Blair, begins in medias violentiae, the offense struck, but the bloodfeud yet begun.
In the opening scene, Dwight is scraggy bearded, derelict, scavenging food and modern amenities on the sly. He hears that his parents’ killer is being paroled and sets off like some honky, inept Anton Chigurh to mete out vengeance. And this is the great difference between Blue Ruin and similar films like A History of Violence and No Country for Old Men or something starring Liam Neeson, rather than a clockwork killing-machine, as stoic as he is efficient, Dwight is a meek avenger, reticent, fumbling and shy. He breaks guns, loses them, misses from short range, injures himself, dawdles, hems and haws; he is not built for this bloody business, yet he doggedly forges on. But the film is not about the inevitability of violence, for his mission is spontaneous and unmeditated; neither is it necessarily about the inexorable cycle of revenge, though we know that blood will have blood. Ultimately the film is about the human impossibility of justice.
–Spoilers, like some unstoppable vengeful spirit, are coming–
Within the first twenty minutes Dwight has killed his target, but as he makes his haphazard escape from the Cleland clan (the McCoys to his Hatfield), it is hinted at that he killed the wrong man. Later this is verified; Wade, the man he assassinated, did not kill his parents. Regardless, Dwight is willing to let the grudge die now that he has struck back, but he suspects that the wheels of vengeance are only beginning to turn.
He retreats to his sister’s house, convinces her to take her children and flee while he attempts to settle things. As she leaves she says, “I’d forgive you if you were crazy. But you’re not. You’re weak.” To the man who had just avenged the supposed killer of their parents, who was about to face down the rest of the family single-handed, who would happily pay for his crime in prison and even death, this seems misplaced, but she seems to be implying a braver solution.
At one point Dwight asks Teddy Cleland, the brother of Wade, what would happen if he surrendered to the police. Teddy shakes his head and says, “You don’t get to do what you did and just lock yourself up.” The implication being that going to prison does not serve justice. He even goes so far as to say that he’d respect what Dwight did if it weren’t his brother that was killed. They both agree that justice requires blood for blood, the problem being that blood begets blood.
At the heart of this film is the conflict of the Lex Talionis, the eye for an eye of the Old Testament, which seems to dictate a tit for tat form of justice (it doesn’t), but even if it did, there could never really be a balancing of the scales. Tooth for tooth does not take into account the innumerable inequalities of time, quality and use. To lose a tooth at 65 isn’t as damaging as losing it at 12. A victim losing a healthy tooth when the attacker has only rotten teeth or no teeth at all cannot right the wrong. The tooth of a meat-eater is more useful than the tooth of an eater of porridge. Even the monetary restitution, which is the intended outcome of the Mosaic Law, wasn’t for the purpose of assigning value to the invaluable. These laws were intended to curb violence and shape the imaginations of the Israelites to understand that justice can only be served when we take up the victim’s suffering as well as the offender’s punishment.
Teddy tells Dwight that his father, the real murderer, died a free man, sitting in his chair, watching television and drinking beer. And even if Wade Jr. was guilty, killing him is still futile because it cannot repair the damage to him and his sister, it cannot bring back his lost years. In the denouement Dwight is hesitant to conclude his bloody mission, there is a tension drawn; he so badly wants it to be over without any further bloodshed. He tells them he doesn’t know how it will end, but we know that there is no human way for justice to be served and in the end, every offender becomes a victim.
There is but one way to conclude violence. The upright man must take the initial violence and its retribution upon himself. This is what turning the other cheek means, for the victim to claim also the punishment for the offender; to take on the insult atop the wrong and thus end the cycle of vengeance.
There are innocents in the film: Dwight’s sister and her kids, Dwight’s highschool friend Ben, and William, the grandson of Big Wade. The characters take great care to preserve them from the killing, but they are all sullied. His sister must forever look over her shoulder, Ben is forced to kill (though he takes pains to keep it legal), and William is made to take up the family feud. William shoots Dwight but ultimately fails to stop the last spree. William leaves the house as what’s left of his family and the man whose life they ruined add their blood to the spill.
Though Blue Ruin is only his second feature, Saulnier is an experienced cinematographer, and his skill is on display. This is no rote action flick with staccato shots and stiff over the shoulder editing; there is patient fluidity to the film. It is gory, but not exploitative, and it is designed to highlight the ugliness of its subject.
As Dwight dies, he repeats, “the keys are in the car, the keys are in the car, the keys are in the car,” passing on the burden of violence in the symbol of his beaten, bullet-riddled, blue ruined car. Whether William takes up the burden is left unanswered, but the world is bleak, the scales are unbalanced and there is blood still that cries out from the ground.