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‘Blue Ruin’: Sort-of hero on a revenge quest he can’t handle

In “Blue Ruin” homeless Dwight seeks vengeance when man convicted his parents’ murder is released from prison.  |

In “Blue Ruin,” homeless Dwight seeks vengeance when the man convicted in his parents’ murder is released from prison. | Radius-TWC

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‘BLUE RUIN’ ★★★1⁄2

Dwight Evans Macon Blair

Ben Gaffney Devin Ratray

Sam Amy Hargreaves

Teddy Cleland Kevin Kolack

Radius-TWC presents a film written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Running time: 92 minutes. Rated R (for strong bloody violence, and language). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre and available on iTunes.

Updated: June 3, 2014 6:13AM

You couldn’t ask for a more unlikely avenger than the ill-equipped sort-of hero of “Blue Ruin,” and that’s precisely why it’s far, far more suspenseful than the typical violent revenge thriller.

It’s also why it functions equally well as a potent reflection on the futility of revenge.

Winner of the International Federation of Film Critics Prize at last year’s Cannes festival, the low-budget “Blue Ruin” was written, shot and directed by Jeremy Saulnier (“Murder Party”) and executive produced by lead actor Macon Blair, his lifelong friend. But if you’re thinking that sort of buddy-buddy inbreeding doesn’t bode well, think again. Blair couldn’t be better in the role of an anti-action hero who places himself in a situation he’s entirely unprepared to handle. Then handles it, the best he can, anyway.

Blair plays Dwight, a reclusive homeless man with long hair and a scraggly beard who lives at the Virginia shore in his car, the broken-down family Pontiac that gives the film its name. Dwight is sad-eyed, nervous and mostly silent, but living an entirely benign existence until he gets some unsettling information from a kindly police officer. Wade Cleland (Sandy Barnett), the man who has been imprisoned for murdering his parents, is about to be released. And though the news clearly terrifies him, it also fills him with vengeful purpose.

If Dwight suddenly turned into a steely-eyed killer, “Blue Ruin” wouldn’t be nearly as compelling. Fortunately, he doesn’t. He has a hard time just getting his car back on the road, then a harder time trying to get his hands on a gun and ultimately has to make do with a fillet knife when he locates his man in a roadhouse men’s room. And then he doesn’t really know how to use it. (Among other things, “Blue Ruin” makes it clear why there is such a thing as a professional killer). He manages, though, messily, and early enough that you might be checking your watch until you realize there’s a whole clan of redneck crime-family Clelands — and they like to deal with situations like this in-house.

Artfully shot and drenched in melancholy, though not without darkly comic moments, “Blue Ruin” nonetheless achieves nerve-wracking peaks of tension, despite Saulnier’s attempts, between eruptions of extreme violence, to subvert thriller expectations. After the first killing, for example, Dwight shaves, cuts his hair and changes into clothes that make him look more like an anxious junior accountant than a participant in a blood feud. Then his sense of purpose is undermined when his sister is furious with him for bringing such big trouble home. And a new development about the murder of his parents calls what he’s done into question.

The Clelands won’t stop, though, and neither can he as long as his sister is in danger. In the end, he can’t worry too much about whether he’s right or wrong because he’s committed and there’s only one way out — even if he’s hopelessly unsuited for the task.

And stakes in a thriller don’t get much higher than that.

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