Layering humor into violent situations is a trademark of both multiplex and American indie movies, and it’s frequently an empty gesture — a hipster wink to the audience, a cheapening of anything like real engagement with the material.
However: While fugitive humor emerges in regular intervals in the bloody, micro-budget revenge picture “Blue Ruin,” this is something different. The jokes are funny, for one thing, but they also serve a purpose.
If plenty of movies (and novels and plays) preach lessons on the negative toll of revenge, this one goes straight for revenge-as-absurdity. Why wouldn’t we laugh at the subject?
Dwight (the heroic Macon Blair) lives in a disintegrating blue car by the seashore. He receives disturbing news: The man convicted of killing his parents is being released from prison.
This sets in motion Dwight’s revenge, a plan so haphazard and freely improvised that at times it approximates the end-over-end momentum of a Road Runner cartoon. The road leads to Dwight’s sister’s house (where the movie briefly flirts with a “Home Alone” homage) and the home of the killer’s family, a brood so stoked with backwoods clannishness that they seem prepared to give up everything just to wipe Dwight from the face of the earth.
There’s also a terrific interlude involving Dwight’s old high-school buddy (Devin Ratray, one of the glorious brothers from “Nebraska”), a gun enthusiast with a meticulous approach to problem-solving. Along with its exploration of revenge scenarios, “Blue Ruin” is adept at suggesting that America’s heartland is rife with characters who fall just shy of the chain saw-massacre business.
The movie is the sophomore effort of director-writer Jeremy Saulnier, a clever chap who clearly wants to grab some attention with this ingenious effort. And yet, except for the explosions of violence, the movie isn’t flashy; Saulnier trusts his material enough to let the early reels unfold slowly, with very little dialogue, as he sets up his dominoes.
Throwaway references gain weight as revelations leak out along the way — it’s suggested that the blue car might have a significant history in this saga, for instance — and Saulnier already knows how to string along a running gag. (On the latter score, pay attention to the car keys.)
The way the humor can’t entirely crowd out something horribly sad is one of the film’s real achievements. That, and the observation that a bullet wound hurts less than being shot with an arrow. That might not sound funny, but in context? Hilarious.
“Blue Ruin” (three stars)
This intriguing indie finds some new wrinkles in a basic revenge scenario: A man (Macon Blair) seeks his parents’ killer, newly released from prison. Director Jeremy Saulnier finds a weirdly humorous undertone to this bloody tale, as though reminding us that revenge is innately absurd.
Rating: R, for violence, language
Opening: Friday May 9 at Sundance Cinemas Seattle.