As the movies have told us plenty of times before, bad things happen when a hobo gets a shotgun. In Blue Ruin, the sophomore directorial effort from Jeremy Saulnier (and the first to receive international distribution thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign), we are introduced to Dwight (Macon Blair), a hobo who lives out his car, eats food from rubbish bins and uses empty water bottles as bathrooms. This meaningless existence is soon given purpose when he returns to his childhood home to undertake an act of vengeance- and as anybody who has seen a genre film before can attest, killing one person is the beginning and not the end of the problems for both Dwight and his recently reunited family.
The film successfully manages to utilise both laugh out loud black humour and heavily stylised violence in a way that has understandably seen comparisons with the Coen Brothers, particularly Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men. And whilst it does share elements with both of these (the Motown soundtrack of the former, and the Cormac McCarthy-inspired surrealist violence of the latter) it mostly plays out like Fargo reimagined as a revenge thriller. Dwight is essentially a cipher for William H Macy’s sad sack car salesman Jerry Lundegaard in both his increasing confusion of motivation and sheer hopelessness the more he gets in over his head. Most importantly, he also shares that character’s sole trait of being one of the few genuinely funny humourless characters in film- an early scene where he attempts to dispose of a gun being a notable example.
The Coens have a reputation for being the most moral filmmakers working today- no bad deed goes unpunished in their films, although they do often make a habit of punishing the “good” characters as well (Donny in The Big Lebowski, Larry in A Serious Man). By sharing this preoccupation with doing what’s morally right in such a familiar style, Saulnier’s film increasingly feels too familiar, even if it never stops being entertaining. Of course, these are narrative elements embedded in the majority of genre movies, ones that the Coens quietly reference throughout their filmography (Joel was an assistant director for Sam Raimi, so clearly has an understanding and appreciation for genre filmmaking of all forms). The only problem is Saulnier appears to be directly aping the Coens as opposed to the films that influence their work.
Blue Ruin marks Jeremy Saulnier out as an exciting filmmaker to watch – it’s just a shame that the film can’t fully shake off the weight of its influences. But then, if you’re going to stand on the shoulders of giants, why not two of the best filmmakers working today?