Vantage points for comparison to Blue Ruin abound. The Coen Brothers and their more dark-hearted works like Blood Simple are obvious progenitors, as are the modern space-and-place indies most popularly epitomized by the works of David Gordon Green (and on some level Terrence Malick before him). Older, more expressively masculine works from the likes of Walter Hill also grandfather Blue Ruin’s more visceral critique of modern masculinity. But if Ruin isn’t anything original or particularly adventurous, it is still entirely game for the ride, and director Jeremy Saulnier is so adept at stitching together these disparate parts in uneasy ways (and leaving just enough space between the stitches for the wounds to threaten opening up) that the film never loses its fleshy fascination.
Saulnier’s most pressing achievement is a sense of American place, trading on mythic Americana imagery and drawing heavily on his youth in struggling Appalachia. There’s so much going on with abstract feelings and slight emotions its hard not to out-and-out consider the work a cousin of French impressionism, but there’s far too much bone-crunching raw normalcy on display (this particular combination very much out of the Green school, although Saulnier outdoes Green’s own Joe for best hard-hitting but poetic film about Appalachian life of 2014). Everything is so uncommonly regular it feels alien, building up a location that feels distantly mythic yet has the well-worn shimmer of being right at home in your backyard.
The film is on fine ground with character as well though, largely owing to how intermingled humanity and location become in Blue Ruin. Saulnier’s camera trades on the little details, especially in the mini-masterpiece of an opening third that trades on implication and suggestion and depicts cold-hearted, thirsty revenge with blunt force trauma and generally makes violence out to be messy, damp, and difficult rather than cool or composed. The opening sections of Blue Ruin are nearly dialogue free, and Saulnier exhibits a crystal clear precision behind the camera for exposing little hints at who his characters are, how they know each other, and what drives and happenstances have conspired to bring them to their current locations.
His basic story – Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) seeks revenge on Wade Cleland for killing his parents and then Wade’s kin look for their own revenge – doesn’t reveal itself in this manner until we’re deep within the film’s grasp. As events unfold, we only see a man waiting. Which becomes watching. Which becomes stalking. Which becomes killing. Which becomes fleeing. We don’t know the details, and we find ourselves implicated in the elemental details of momentary action and reaction, of thought and consequence, more than the intellectual flow of events. Saulnier’s script is at one with his directorial style – quiet and composed but brash and responsive – and the two together fuse into a confrontational whole of reflective indignation.
As such, Blue Ruin is equally as comfortable in the broadest of strokes as it in the finest of painterly pricks. It works as a rambunctious, stripped-dirty revenge story, a braised commentary on modern masculinity, a burned-over warts-and-all take on American geographic identity, and a portrait of loneliness. It doesn’t do any one of these things ground-breakingly, but the confluence of styles, giving the film a fluctuating dread positioned halfway between white hot and cool blue, helps carry it into a special place it has no problem filling out comfortably.
There’s a raspy, casual simplicity to the work, not unlike something Clint Eastwood might direct if he were forced to work on a micro-budget (by his standards), both in the terse qualities of the storytelling and in their subtle, pointed undercutting of the value and satisfaction of revenge. Blue Ruin is unmistakably a work about how revenge lashes out pointlessly and happens more as an arid, vacuous fact than as the crimson culmination of a long quest. It is a work about righteous indignation plundered and left out to rot. It captures more than any film in a while the fickle groundless-ness of vengeance, but it is anything but a groundless film.
Frank opens with a vaguely lonely, exceptionally British looking young man starring off into the ocean, framed just so intricately in the middle of the screen so as to convey that director Lenny Abrahamson and writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughton have studied their sub-sub-sub-Wes Anderson well. Within the first few minutes of the film we are treated to: people walking quietly with their heads down along the side of the road, struggling musicians, a pan across a proper shelf of music cassettes of mid-’90s alt-music, a would-be song entitled “Suburbia”, and a twitter hashtag typed by the main character that annoyingly finds its way on to the screen itself (on-screen text quickly becoming the bane of my existence). Everything is set in place for a twee indie fable of not-quite-lost souls played in the register of dramedy and drenched in exceedingly self-conscious plucky toybox framing.
And the music. Oh the music. What a collage of bullshit, from the twinkly xylophoney would-be theme song to the angsty-lonely-cutesy everyday-lyrics-and-keyboard twaddle spouted out by the main character. It’s positively awful, like a particularly over-zealous freshman film school student spent a vaguely drunken Saturday night with their slam poetry club reading Pitchfork reviews of Arcade Fire albums and falling gruesomely in love with everything produced in Brooklyn and the UK in film in the mid-2000s. And then they woke up and decided to make a movie. It’s the spitting image of the film people imagine when they haven’t seen anything by Wes Anderson and talk about how tepid and and stilted his films are. Probably because the director doesn’t actually seem to have seen any of his films either. Maybe just the posters. On his way to a mason-jar-and-chalkboard establishment to ponder the state of the world.
Here’s the thing though: Frank absolutely expects that we realize how consciously indified the whole ordeal is and think of it in exactly this way: as an ordeal. Abrahamson and his tag-team screenwriter take us so far upstream in quirk after quirk and encase their film in such cloying, thoroughly unsalted sweetness that we are actively meant to grow a little tired far earlier than the film could possibly have the nerve to end. Everything twee about most indies is kicked up an extra notch here; everything is just that more brittle, that more statically positioned and sterile in its composition, that much more unearned in its pummeling cuteness. The whole idea of the film – a keyboardist (a keyboardist for god’s sake) inadvertently joining a band to record their debut album on an island for a year and coming to know the internal difficulties of the band’s personalities – just sounds like a parody waiting to happen. We are meant to arrive at the halfway point of the film and ask “how in the world am I too continue on like this for another 45 minutes?”
At which point Abrahamson reveals his real intent: a somewhat radical treatise on how the whole cloth of indie aesthetic put-ons amount to nothing more than a masquerade for the ailing human soul, a highly-ordered suit of mustachioed, plaid armor to cover up the detachment and distance swelling up in one’s heart. Quite literally, in fact, this story of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who joins a flailing indie band by happenstance (that the film makes no attempt at presenting as anything other than happenstance at that) and the band’s leader Frank (Michael Fassbender, giving a very sharp physical performance of the most temperamental variety), features a diegetic suit of armor in the form of a cheeky face mask worn by Fassbender throughout 95% of the film. In the context of this film, the face ends up a calling card to all indies and a reflection of how unnecessarily artificial and covered up in sugar-coated boredom they are, how unable they are to truly express themselves when covered up by the emotion-masking rigidity and embalming fluid of tweeness. As if that wasn’t enough, it also concludes with a messy if humanist gesture about how people coping with mental illness address the world in difficult, disjointed ways because the society around them doesn’t provide them any other outlet for doing so.
It’s a good thing Frank has this metatextual madness going for it, for it’s not honestly that much of a finished product otherwise. The final thirty minutes are a supremely sharp, messy little dissection of lost souls, but the preceding two-thirds are often so willfully difficult that the larger questions of justification remain. The final product comes up a pass, and a fairly daring and adventuresome one at that, but there’s something to be said against a film that only succeeds because its final 30% or 40 % works. Frank is an easy film to admire for what it does do right (its first hour also admittedly deserves credit for often using its British indie qualities to mock other British indies rather than fall in love with them, although this portion is on the whole a bit too genteel to leave a mark when it bites). But it’s sometimes a tall order, and not any sort of rampaging success as it is. Let’s give it a pass for now, and hope Abrahamson is on to better things in the long term.