Blue Ruin
Produced by The Lab of Madness
Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Distributed by RADiUS-TWC

Hateship Loveship
Produced by The Film Community
Directed by Liza Johnson
Written by Mark Poirier from Alice Munro’s story
Distributed by IFC Films

Revenge, we’re told, is a dish best served cold.  But is this true?  Director Jeremy Saulnier decided to put this maxim to the test with his new film, Blue Ruin.  His method couldn’t be simpler.  He shows us what happens when revenge is served hot—not to mention wildly and ineptly.

Saulnier’s title, Blue Ruin, seems to refer to the decomissioned blue Bonneville that belongs to the film’s protagonist, Dwight (Macon Blair).  Beneath its plentiful rust, its original color shows through here and there.  There’s also the echo of a homemade gin trafficked during Prohibition.  Those who drank this azure-tinged rotgut were thought, with good evidence, to be inviting blue ruin into their lives.  Like his car, Dwight is decommissioned, and although (as far as we can tell) he doesn’t drink, he certainly has an alcoholic’s obsession with doom.  Some 10 or 15 years earlier (the chronology is vague), a roughneck named Wade Cleland shot his parents to death, leaving Dwight permanently bereft.  For Cleland it was a matter of honor.  Dwight’s father had entered into an affair with Cleland’s mother, and something had to be done.  Apparently, killing Dwight’s mother was unfortunate collateral damage.

When we first meet Dwight, he’s still consumed with grief.  He lives out of his car in a beachside Delaware resort town, scavenging food from restaurant dumpsters and sneaking into homes of strangers to bathe while they’re out.  He is the living definition of forlorn.  That is, until he learns that Cleland is about to be freed from prison.  The news galvanizes Dwight.  He restores the battery he’d removed from his car some time earlier and drives off in search of a gun.  The thought of revenge has quickened his spirit.  There’s a problem, however: Dwight is not a man of action.

Much of the film’s drama derives from the fact that Dwight is wholly unsuitable to the bloody task he’s assigned himself.  You only have to look at him to see this.  His arms are flaccid, his gait flat-footed and uncertain.  His wide-set, soulful eyes have a pleading, puzzled look.  He’s simply not equipped physically or mentally to commit violence.  When he steals a pistol from a parked pickup truck, he finds it’s fitted with a trigger lock.  Desperate to remove this impediment, he ends up destroying the gun, leaving himself armed with nothing but a fish-filleting knife.  Feverishly undaunted, he tracks Cleland to a bar where he’s celebrating his freedom with his family members.  There he takes Cleland by surprise in the men’s room, managing to use the knife, albeit so clumsily that he reveals his identity.  Dwight then finds he’s made himself and his own family members targets of the Cleland family’s homicidal wrath.  In short, he’s sparked an unstoppable blood feud.

What’s most remarkable about the film is how Saulnier creates gnawing suspense.  Like Conan Doyle and Hitchcock, he masterfully withholds critical information.  By hewing exclusively to Dwight’s point of view, he reveals just enough to keep us in a state of sustained alarm.  We don’t find out, for instance, about the infidelity that provoked the original murder until after Dwight’s first confrontation with the Clelands.  Still later we discover the affair resulted in a pregnancy.  And there’s a good deal more that surfaces along the film’s bloody way.  With each new revelation, we’re drawn deeper into the moral confusion begotten by the adulterers.  The families on both sides are not the kind of folks who seek legal remedies and hire divorce lawyers.  They reach for their rifles.  Once the Clelands are on his trail, Dwight decides to do the same.  He locates his old classmate, Ben, a gun aficionado.  Interestingly for a film that’s won plaudits for being antigun, Ben (Devin Ratray) seems the sanest character on screen.  He may not give Dwight advice that would find approval on the New York Times editorial page, but he does take care to tell the would-be gunman how likely it is he’ll get himself killed if he continues on his course.  When Ben realizes Dwight’s not going to abandon his mission, he provides some sensible instruction.  “If you point the gun, don’t hesitate.  Shoot.”  Well, it sounds sensible anyway.  Acting on it is another matter.

At one point, Dwight witnesses a shooting and finds himself completely unnerved.  The shot blows off a man’s nose and part of his skull.  As Dwight looks at the carnage horrified, the shooter says matter-of-factly that this is what guns do.

The film has won praise from many quarters, some of it over the top.  It’s being touted as an anti-NRA movie.  I’m not at all convinced this is Saulnier’s intention.  He seems far more interested in other issues his story raises, ones writers have taken up ever since Aeschylus portrayed Clytemnestra’s infidelity and the slew of murders it begot.  We need to be reminded of how roiling passions can disrupt civilized order tragically, whether or not guns come into play.

Hateship Loveship, like Blue Ruin, is a small film that takes on large issues.  Based on a charming short story by Canadian writer Alice Munro, it concerns desire and its travails, albeit in a far quieter mode than Saulnier’s work.

Director Liza Johnson updates Munro’s sallow comedy from the 1950’s and uses its plot to attain something more thematically ambitious.  Johnson seeks nothing less than to address the issues that have bedeviled mankind ever since its members decided it was time to account for the children that came along in the wake of willy-nilly sexual cavorting.  As so often happens in these matters, women held the trump cards, and men played along as best they could.

Johanna (Kristen Wiig), however, does not fully appreciate the hand she’s been dealt, but in the course of events slowly discovers its strength.  She’s unmarried, in early middle age, and works as a caretaker-cum-housekeeper.  We meet her as her most recent charge, an extremely elderly woman, dies.  A devoted realist, Johanna isn’t surprised.  It’s just a fact that she must report to the authorities.  She does so with little emotion.

Johanna’s reputation for efficiency and honesty gains her another appointment quickly.  She’s hired by Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) to manage his upscale home and care for his granddaughter, whose mother died some years earlier in a boating accident that may have been precipitated by her husband, Ken (Guy Pearce), when he’d had too much drink.

Having come to the McCauley house to settle in to her new quarters, Johanna meets the family.  Upon being introduced, Ken makes a halfhearted pass at her.  It’s clear he does so more to stay in practice than to start anything.  Still Johanna’s head, as they used to say, is turned.  One understands.  Johanna belongs to the world’s numberless invisible people.  No one pays her much attention.  She’s there; she’s useful.  What more is there to say?  It’s clear no one has paid her a romantic compliment, even one as tepid as Ken’s, in a long, long while.  It’s not, we suppose, that men have never looked at her.  She may not be a beauty, but neither is she unattractive.  It’s just that, for whatever reason, she’s given up on that side of life.  Was she jilted in the past?  Were her opportunities suffocated by an oppressive parent?  We never learn.  It’s enough to know that she’s a woman who’s been left behind, and that suddenly—perhaps it was witnessing her charge’s death or Ken’s mildly flirtatious words—she’s no longer willing to submit quietly to her fate as one scratched from the sexual sweepstakes.  Her desire to run the race has been awakened.  Still, she wouldn’t try but for the mischief of her new charge, the teenage Sabitha, and Sabitha’s friend Edith.  Like many girls their age, they decide to have some fun at the expense of one they deem a frump.  Noticing that Ken has sent a letter to his father-in-law that includes a note to Johanna thanking her for taking on the responsibility of caring for Sabitha, the girls decide to set up an e-mail account in Ken’s name and conduct a make-believe correspondence between him and Johanna.  When the always proper Johanna responds to the letters they write in Ken’s name, the girls up the ante by giving Ken’s missives an increasingly romantic aspect.  It’s a cruel joke that generates some not entirely unexpected results.

As the strong-willed woman heading into spinsterism, Wiig plays her part quietly—maybe too quietly at times.  It’s almost as if she had been worried her Saturday Night Live persona would disrupt the film’s delicacy and wound up keeping her performance somewhat tighter than necessary.  Still, her acting is often striking, especially in a moment shortly after she’s become convinced that romance has emerged in her life.  We watch her approach her bedroom mirror and then, weirdly, kiss her image.  She does so rapturously, with her mouth open as if she were surrendering to an overmastering passion.  The scene walks up to the edge of slapstick comedy but doesn’t tip over.  Instead, Wiig manages to suffuse the moment with an entirely believable poignancy.  She’s a woman starved for love.  She’ll do whatever it takes to prepare herself for its unlikely arrival.  For his part, Pearce makes of Ken the kind of attractive but weak fellow on whom a certain kind of woman dotes.  He’s half a cocaine addict and has been relying on a slutty girlfriend (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) to take care of him.  The women’s struggle over Ken is quietly humorous and finally quite convincing.

There are problems with this film, and it certainly doesn’t come close to fulfilling its chosen theme, but it’s eminently worth watching, if only to see Wiig and Pearce put their considerable talents to good use.