The Transmission of Suffering: Cycles of Violence in Saulnier’s Blue Ruin

blue ruin macon blair

The Film
Directed by relative newcomer Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin is an American thriller that showed at Cannes in May of 2013. It’s not a slick one-man-with-incredible-skills-and-a-righteous-mission thriller. . . it’s more of a grim southern gothic thriller with a touch of black comedy. There are no action heroes in this film; there is no real villain either. The film begins as a sort of underdog revenge fantasy, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s more about the fallout from revenge and then is is about the quest for it. And while there is plenty of violence in the film, Saulnier is far more interested in the consequences of that violence and in the way that violence begins and is perpetuated than he is in the bloody actions themselves.

(As is the case with just about all of my post that aren’t reviews, what follows is full of spoilers. So go watch Blue Ruin if that’s a problem for you).

No Heroes. No Villains. Just Violence. 
As I said above, Blue Ruin is a film without a real hero or a concrete and properly villainous villain. While this situation may seem a little odd for a revenge-driven thriller, it also allows Saulnier to portray violence, the consequences of violence, and the American culture that enables such violence in a much more realistic and more damning light than he would have been able to otherwise. 

What do I mean when I say that Blue Ruin does not adhere to the expected fantastic-hero vs. evil-villain framework?

Well, for starters, the films “protagonist” is not particularly virtuous; in fact, he’s sort of pathetic, and his reasons for revenge steadily collapse as the film progresses. At the beginning of the film, Dwight (portrayed skillfully by Macon Blair) is a ghost of a person. He’s a bum. He lives out of his car. He is antisocial and seems to have no connections at all. He bathes in houses that don’t belong to him, but he slips out before he is ever seen. He’s not anyone at all; which is just about all there is to know about him. Still, as he follows the man convicted of murdering his parents (Wade Cleland) and pulls out a knife to kill him, the audience hopes that he will succeed in getting the revenge he seeks. He does. Far too quickly. So quickly, in fact that the audience barely has time to get excited about it. And then, just minutes afterwards, it is revealed that Wade may not have actually been a murderer after all. From this point on, Dwight’s status as “hero” (which was never that solid to begin with) falls apart quite rapidly. As it does, doubt, cynicism, and a sort of self-defeating bitterness takes its place, pervading the film until hope and clear-cut ethics are obliterated beyond recognition.

Just as Dwight is never much more than a ghost, so too are the film’s villain(s) largely lacking in presence. Wade (the target of Dwight’s revenge) is dead only minutes after he enters the film. Later in the film, it is revealed that Wade did not even kill Dwight’s parents; his father did. But Cleland Sr. has been dead for years and was rendered a ghost by cancer before Blue Ruin even began. Moreover, there are only 2 scenes in which Dwight and the Clelands speak. At different times Dwight is trying to kill and is running from various Cleland’s, but the audience is told very little about them and is never really given a fully-formed picture of them. In this film full of pessimism and violence, the people caught up in that violence are hardly there at all. 

Just as Dwight is not especially heroic, so too are the Cleland’s short on clear-cut villainy and evil. No, I won’t argue that they are pleasant people by any stretch; but they aren’t mass murders, sadistic masterminds, or trained killers either: they are gun-obsessed hicks, nothing more. Yes, Cleland Sr. does kill Dwight’s parents, but he only does so after Dwight’s father sleeps with his wife (the murder is not justified, but it is motivated and carried out with a clear and limited purpose). When the Clelands attack Dwight at his sister’s home, it becomes very clear that for all their guns (and crossbows), they aren’t actually that good at killing and that they don’t really have much of plan. If anything, the real sin of the Cleland’s is their belief that they should own enough weaponry to arm a small country and their love for taking “justice” into their own hands. They aren’t super villains. . . hell, they aren’t even clearly individuated persons; rather, they are stand-ins for a certain mindset, belief system, and culture (one built on action movies, NRA bull shit, and red-state individualism). 

Which is all to get me to to the following segue (what a shit segue into a segue): In Blue Ruin, a pathetic and hollowed-out ghost of a human goes up against a culture of self-perpetuating and ever-expanding violence, and no one comes out on top. 

Violence Begets Violence
As I said above, Blue Ruin is far more interested in the consequences and the effects of violence than it is in violence itself. This is true, but I may have also worded it in a slightly misleading fashion; for, in the film, the consequences of violence are almost inevitably more violence. 

Saulnier almost goes out of his way to give each of the acts of violence in the film a violent motive. Blue Ruin is filled with people who kill because someone else killed. Dwight kill’s Wade, because his parents were murdered. The Clelands try to kill Dwight, because he killed Wade. Dwight’s friend kill’s Teddy, because Teddy was about to kill Dwight. Dwight kill’s more of the Clelands, because he is afraid that they will kill his sister.

Even the murder of Dwight’s parents years before the film begins is motivated by what can be seen as an act of violence: Dwight’s father has an affair with Cleland Sr.’s wife. While adultery isn’t murder and shouldn’t be treated as such, it is easy to think of it is as a violent and invasive overstepping of one’s bounds. If Dwight’s father hadn’t committed such an act, Dwight would have never been orphaned and would probably would not have become a killer either.

Furthermore, the fact that Dwight’s initial act of revenge is eventually revealed to be carried out in response to what was also an act of revenge should not be ignored. When Dwight kills Wade, he does not start a cycle of violence; rather, he continues one that he has been trapped in since the day his father started having an affair.

After Dwight’s friend shoots Teddy, he says something to the effect of, “I had to wait for him to point the gun at you, so that it would be legal”; in Blue Ruin violence is both the cause and the effect, and the results of such a system have no choice but to be devastating. 

The Inevitability of Collateral Damage
Blue Ruin also declares that the fact that acts of violence are doomed to bring about more violence is closely tied to the inevitability of collateral damage. In the film, murder, violence (physical and otherwise), and violently vengeful acts are never fully contained. They impact those that did not deserve to be impacted by them. They have unexpected and unpredictable negative consequences; for, according to the film, such is simply their nature.

This is most clearly seen when Teddy Cleland finally reveals the details of the murder of Dwight’s parents. Cleland Sr. killed Dwight’s father for having an affair with his wife, but he had no feud at all with Dwight’s mother. And yet, she too ended up dead.

According to Teddy, Dwight’s when mother was killed, she was killed accidentally. When Cleland Sr. shot Dwight’s father, his mother happened to be in vehicle with him. She was also shot and killed. She is collateral damage; her death was never intended, but it happened, because the violence against her husband was no accident at all. If Dwight’s mother had not been killed when he was a child, it is certainly probable that Dwight himself would have turned out quite differently. He probably would not have become totally estranged from his sister and family. He would not have become an antisocial ghost bent on vengeance either.

If Cleland Sr. had not killed Dwight’s mother while he was getting revenge on Dwight’s father, Dwight would have had more reasons not to kill Wade when he was released from prison. If Dwight had not gone after Wade, he too would have been allowed to keep living and the Cleland clan would not have been decimated. If only violence were easily controlled. If only the consequences of murder could be contained.

Transmitting More Than Violence 
Interestingly, violence is not the only thing that seems to be inevitably perpetuated and passed on in the film. In fact, once one considers what else is transmitted within the film, Blue Ruin appears even more pessimistic than it would otherwise.

Just like his father, Dwight is an intruder. He invades. He takes what isn’t his; and Saulnier makes sure that the audience knows it. It’s no mere coincidence that Blue Ruin opens by establishing Dwight not only as a vagabond who lives out of his car but also as someone who has no problem breaking into someone else’s home. Dwight is no ordinary home invader either. He doesn’t destroy the homes he enters, he does not take items of value from them either. Rather, Dwight transgresses so that he can steal (if only for an hour or so) the lives of others. Dwight showers in homes of strangers. He lies in their beds. He takes and wears their clothes. He makes himself a cup of tea. His particular brand of home invasion is far more violative than an ordinary robbery.   

In fact, Dwight’s brand of home invasion (in which he sneaks into a temporarily empty home and acts as if it’s his while the owner’s aren’t there to see him) is not that different from adultery (aka the transgression that got his father killed and placed Dwight within a virtually inescapable cycle of destructive violence). Dwight’s father overstepped his bounds and put himself in the place of another man and took what was not his; and Dwight, who even dies in his enemy’s house (read: bed), constantly does the same. He does so throughout the film, almost compulsively, and without a second thought. 

Moreover, by portraying Dwight as a habitual intruder, Blue Ruin positions him as someone who is especially likely to trigger a cycle of violence. Even if Dwight had decided not to kill Wade or had never learned of his release, his willingness to take what is not his and to live as an eternal trespasser probably would have gotten him killed eventually–that is, as soon as he found himself too intensely at odds with the Cleland family values and with the culture that the film uses them to represent.

The Cycle Continues?
Before I end this post (which does seem to have grown quite large), allow me to briefly discuss the end of the film and, in particular, the survival of young William Cleland. While Blue Ruin does end with the death of nearly all of its characters, its ending also refuses to provide a definite end to the cycle of violence that it portrays.

According to Dwight, William is the son of his father and Cleland Sr.’s wife. He is the product of the adultery that got Dwight’s parents murdered. He is Dwight’s brother. He is the child of a family that Dwight has destroyed with his violence. Like Dwight when his parents were murdered, William at the end of the film is an orphan who has seen far more bloodshed and tragedy than he should have. Whether William will ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after or will continue the cycle of violence that Dwight, Dwight’s father, and various Clelands have placed him in is left open to speculation.

That said, after watching Blue Ruin, it is difficult to imagine William escaping the seemingly never ending violence that made and surrounds him. After all, William is raised by a group of people who believe that guns are the answer to nearly all of their problems. Meanwhile, one of the only characters in the film who survives and manages to avoid violence (for the most part) is Dwight’s sister– a woman who answers “of course not” to the question “is there a gun in the house?” On top of that, the film ends with Dwight going in search of the same car that Dwight has lived in for years—the Blue Ruin of the film’s title and apparently the only material object that Dwight inherited from his parents. He seems to think that the car will enable him to escape the massacre that he has just witnessed, but it certainly won’t help him to rid himself of the burden of such violence or to cleanse himself of any of the trauma that comes along with it. 

What is Dwight hoping for with his final, dying line? With his desperate utterances of “the keys are in the car”? Presumably, that William will be able to live the life he could not after the death of his parents. How foolish he is to do so.

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. As always, feel free to leave me a comment or to share this post.

8 thoughts on “The Transmission of Suffering: Cycles of Violence in Saulnier’s Blue Ruin

  1. Nice post here! It’s a very simple movie that doesn’t try to re-invent the genre of revenge thrillers, but still does enough right, that it’s an absolute joy to sit back and watch.

    • I definitely agree. It was so easy to watch that I really had to sit and think about it for a while before I fully appreciated it. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how carefully crafted the film is.

  2. Bryce says:

    That was the car where the initial murders happened, right? So, he’s living in the past violence always? The bonneville of revenge??? Love the film.

    • I’m not entirely sure if it’s ever stated that the murders happen in that car, but I definitely think you are right that they did either way (I should have mentioned that opps). So yes, he lives his whole life in a cage of past violence and trauma, which he then passes on to his father’s surviving bastard.

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