In 2007, I saw a movie called Murder Party, written and directed by a first-time filmmaker named Jeremy Saulnier. This low-budget (practically non-budget) indie film wasn’t the kind that makes it to big theater screens. The story of an ordinary shmuck invited to a Halloween party where the plan is to murder him for the sake of art, Murder Party was one of those rare surprises for film lovers — a dark comic/horror film that was, despite its limited budget, inventive and intelligent and interesting … and bloody funny.

I was anxious to see more from Jeremy Saulnier. It took six years.

In 2013, after working for years as cinematographer on other people’s films, Saulnier cajoled friends and investors, and finally scraped together (at various stages) a little more than $400,000 to complete his second feature, Blue Ruin. This time, the critical response, if not the general box-office, has been extremely positive. Saulnier’s movie won the International Federation of Film Critics Prize at Cannes in 2013 and four more awards at various film festivals before finally getting a limited theatrical release last April. As of June 20 (already consigned to DVD and home viewing), Blue Ruin had grossed only a little more than half its budget. It’s a shame.

Blue Ruin is a terrific little film that should appeal to audiences of all types, from those of the art-house persuasion to lovers of suspense thrillers. Written, photographed (beautifully!), and directed by Saulnier, it features Macon Blair (Saulnier’s childhood friend who also appeared in Murder Party) as bearded, scraggly lost soul Dwight who, in the opening sequences, scrounges for food in trashcans at a Virginia Beach resort, retreating for shelter, reading, and sleep to a rusty blue Pontiac which, like the aimless depressed Dwight, is a “blue ruin.”

When a kindly police officer tells Dwight that the man who killed his parents years earlier is about to be released from prison, the homeless vagabond prepares to return home to exact revenge. Only Dwight is no Liam Neeson; he achieves his initial aim more by accident than design, eventually killing his target but wounding himself as well.

The cycle of violence begins to escalate as the blood-soaked Dwight is informed by the nephew of his victim that he got the wrong man. The targets are reversed as the bumbling avenger realizes his victim’s remaining kin mean to turn their sights on Dwight’s only living family, his sister and her child. The family feud swings into high gear.

Many reviewers have noted similarities in the new film to the early efforts of the Coen brothers and even Quentin Tarantino, but Saulnier’s film is distinctly different in its own right. Quiet, foreboding, maybe even haunting, Blue Ruin relies on a terrific performance by Blair as the hapless Dwight who, along with Saulnier’s hypnotic cinematography, evokes a powerful response with only minimal dialogue. The actual violence is spare but incredibly convincing.

In the end, though, Blue Ruin is neither a blood-fest nor your typical action thriller. More than anything, it’s a character study of a timid dormouse who becomes a reluctant avenger, bumbling his way through one unexpected confrontation to another until the inevitable, but ironically apt, conclusion.
I hope we don’t have to wait another six years for Jeremy Saulnier’s next film.