Some films are so atmospheric, you can almost feel the temperature. Apocalypse Now evokes this hot humidity, Lawrence of Arabia and its burning desert heat make you want to open the three top buttons of your shirt and get another cold drink from the fridge. Hold the Dark goes the other way: there are few films that make you feel the need to huddle under a warm cover with a mug of hot chocolate like this one. The Alaskan tourism board may be pleased with how beautiful the state’s wilderness looks in Jeremy Saulnier’s latest film, but it is a forbidding beauty that makes you wonder whether it is worth the freezing temperatures and the apparent likelihood of being killed by a wolf. Doubly so if that wolf wears the skin of a human being.
Green Room (directed by Jeremy Saulnier, whose Blue Ruin I liked a lot), may just be the most effective slice of siege thriller this side of early John Carpenter. After introducing us to the film’s protagonists, a punk rock band down on their luck, it quickly sets up the situation that drives the rest of the action: after a last-minute gig at a backwaters dive populated by white supremacists, one of the band members accidentally comes across a murder scene in the titular green room. The band is locked in the room with one of the bouncers, while the neo-Nazis consult with the bar’s owner and their leader, the commanding Darcy (played to pragmatic, evil perfection by Patrick Stewart), who concludes that the only way to resolve the situation is to kill the witnesses.
I do like me a good revenge thriller – although I am also a bit of a moralist when it comes to the genre. The kind of film that takes revenge as a justification for two hours of Liam Neeson (or any other righteously growling alpha male) killing bad guys I can very much do without. If a film questions both the validity and the success rate of your average revenge spree, however, then give me more of that. Even as seemingly straight a revenge flick as Kill Bill complicates its heroine’s “roaring rampage of revenge” in a number of ways: by suggesting that vengeance may be self-perpetuating, by depicting the avenger as similarly guilty as those she wreaks vengeance on, by humanising some of the people at the receiving end of the Bride’s katana. Memento, The Limey, Inglourious Basterds, Oldboy (and in fact Chan-wook Park’s entire revenge trilogy): all of these show how characters may come to see revenge as their best course of action, but they equally suggest that vengeance has a way of coming back to bite you in the behind.
Blue Ruin may just be the most interesting revenge tale in years, and that’s in no small part due to its main character: Dwight, played by Macon Blair, is miles away from a Beatrix Kiddo or Charles Bronson in Death Wish, the granddaddy of revenge flick protagonists. With his scraggly beard and his wide eyes, he weirdly looks like the scruffiest, most frightened rabbit. Knives, guns and other stabbing or shooting utensils don’t look at home in his hands. And this drives Blue Ruin most of all: that Dwight may just be so much less capable at administering revenge than the people he’s avenging himself on. Already his murder of the man he presumes to have killed his parents is a messy act, and things don’t get any less messy along the way.
Does it matter that Dwight’s first victim turns out to be innocent of the crime he’s been convicted of? Blue Ruin presents his entire family as guilty in one way or another, and as entirely too ready to take up arms and reciprocate. Yet Dwight’s entire crusade seems misguided from the first: these are not the actions of a stable man, and definitely not those of a hero. When his actions endanger his sister and her family, he goes to warn her, after having gone off the reservation for years, and she tells him in a mixture of sadness and disappointment: “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not. You’re weak.”
It’s this sentence that resonates most with me. For a scruffy bunny of a man, Dwight proves helpless in some moments, surprisingly resourceful and determined in others – but is he weak? The code of traditional revenge thrillers is that vengeance is that someone becomes the instrument of justice when society fails to do so. They take this task onto themselves because no one else is up to it. Blue Ruin turns this onto its head: Dwight isn’t making anything better, not for himself and most definitely not for his sister. The man that did kill Dwight’s parents is long dead, and Dwight’s first victim simply took the fall for his cancer-ridden father. He continues his spree because he believes his sister may be at risk – entirely due to his actions – but the longer he goes on, the harder it becomes not to see this as an extended, roundabout suicide-by-irate-criminal-family.
Blue Ruin isn’t perfect. Some of it feels a little too derivative – there are distinct overtones of the Coens’ Blood Simple – and while it does what it does very well, I did wish it would try to do more. It’s a small film by design, and I’m fine with that, but seeing how well writer-director Jeremy Saulnier handled his material I couldn’t help wishing that he’ll be more ambitious in his next project. Nevertheless, will stay with me, mostly for Macon Blair’s pained, frightened eyes – the eyes of a man who just about suspects that he’s in way over his head and that there’s no way this will end well for anyone involved.