Every revenge movie eventually has to address the idea that, hey, maybe revenge is a really bad idea, that maybe you shouldn't organize your entire life around killing the person who wronged you. Usually, this notion is rejected immediately: A supporting character will say something like, "Wait, you aren't really going to do all this, are you?" and then you never see that character again (unless he or she agrees to help plan the vengeance). It's a ridiculous notion meant to be brushed off as quickly as possible: Of course this is the right thing to do.
In the 2014 indie Blue Ruin, though, that sense of hesitation and uncertainty and regret is all you get. It's not a movie with a moral; it tells its story and gets out. But as you watch it, you don't for a moment feel like its protagonist is cool. He's profoundly broken, and he knows it. He's also a fuckup, albeit a fuckup who kills more than one person before everything is over.
Dwight, our hero, is a scraggly and lost homeless man who, as the movie opens, is eating pizza crusts out of carnival dumpsters and breaking into people's houses to take a bath. He lives in a broken-down sedan on the beach in Delaware, of all godforsaken places. The movie doesn't even grant him the dignity of living in a van down by the river. He doesn't look entirely un-badass at first, mostly because his greasy beard and sad eyes give him a passing resemblance to the pro wrestler Daniel Bryan. A few scenes in, though, he shaves and steals some business-casual clothes, and he spends the rest of the movie looking like a terrified weiner.
Dwight's idyllic dumpster-diving existence comes to an end when he finds out someone is getting out of prison, and he decides he has to go and get revenge on this person. The movie only feeds you little scraps of story for awhile, so I'd be spoiling things if I said much more. But Dwight is in over his head immediately, kicking off a chain of events he can't possibly expect to control. But it's not a surprise when go spectacularly awry: He seems to be in over his head by virtue of the simple fact that he's alive.
This isn't a fun movie by any stretch, but you can almost say the movie has fun with how bad the guy is at revenge. He fucks up a simple tire-slashing. He steals a gun, but can't get the protective lock off of it. We get one of those tried-and-true action-movie scenes where the hero performs surgery on himself in the field, except in this case he loses his nerve and realizes he has to find a hospital. He makes bad mistakes, including one big one he's been specifically warned against making. In his first major dialogue scene, he trails off and then apologizes, since he's not used to saying more than a sentence or two. And even as he's making a big dramatic confession, the movie immediately deflates him, as a random extra asks him to pass the ketchup.
Given its bumbling hero and its need to subvert action-movie tropes, it's hard to talk about Blue Ruin as an action movie. But it is one, after a fashion. The movie's one big concession to movie logic is its family of villains, a vindictive redneck brood who seem to leak evil from their pores. As soon as we meet these motherfuckers, we want to see them die. The movie is partially set in Charlottesville, Va., the city where I live. And when I first watched it a couple of months ago, I thought the family was a bit much, especially since they're supposed to live in a bourgie hippie mountain college town. But then my city became the setting for the latest national-fixation disappearing-girl story, and now I just don't know. We have boonies, and we have street signs with buckshot holes in them. The family is far-fetched, but they're not impossible.
And by giving us these loathsome characters, the movie also gives us a few deeply tense scenes and a few quick bursts of violence—the sort of scenes that happen so quickly that you have to rewind them to process what the fuck just happened. Even if the movie is determined not to be a boilerplate thriller, it sure knows how to grab you and shake you around when it needs to.
More than that, it's just well made. Its cinematography is vivid and gorgeous. Its narrative build is confident. Its actors know what they're doing. A few of them have been in other things: Eve Plumb, the original Jan Brady and the namesake of a '90s alt-rock band who I remember not hating, is in there somewhere, and so is Devin Ratray, who played Kevin's reprobate older brother Buzz in Home Alone. You won't recognize either of them. And in the lead role, one Macon Blair, a guy who's done nothing you've heard of, does beautiful work as a guy who deeply believes that he has to do some terrible things, and who maybe hasn't thought everything through.
Blue Ruin is a decidedly small movie—one made for no money, one that spent a while on the festival circuit before anyone else got to see it. Earlier this year, it became a small-scale success story on VOD, mostly because people saw it and liked it and talked about it. (In fact, it's one of Deadspin's favorite movies of the year so far.) It's perfect for Netflix: a mean and short and tough movie that'll rattle around in your mind days after seeing it. If it hasn't already happened, a friend will probably tell you soon that you need to see this movie. That friend is right. Blue Ruin is a bleak and fucked-up little film, but it's a good one. And now that it's on Netflix, you have no excuse to not let it fuck you up, too.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning |District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior |Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 |The Legend of Drunken Master