Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier in Cannes. Photo by Irene Cho
Laughter isn't the first thing one expects from a story built on vengeance and murder, but writer-director Jeremy Saulnier's much buzzed about Blue Ruin manages to sneak in some light-hearted moments amidst a tale of suspense and carnage. The film opens following a drifter named Dwight who aimlessly meanders the mid-Atlantic area in his broken-down sedan. After receiving news that the man who is accused of murdering his parents is being set free from prison, he decides to take revenge, but a series of mishaps and dumb luck causes him to be the one being hunted.
"I wanted to construct a story out of elements that I had available so I designed it around my best friend, actor Macon Blair, and certain locations that I had at my disposal. There’s a scene in the film—a night invasion that takes place—that’s in my childhood home where I grew up," noted Saulnier this week during a conversation at Directors Fortnight off the Croisette. "The finale takes place at a remote sort of rustic house where the lead actor vacationed as a kid."
His second directorial feature after 2007's Slamdance entry Murder Party, Saulnier had initially thought of a story that would take place in the same area, but then noticed his concept had already been taken. But undeterred, he decided to forge on with a more basic premise, but with a twist.
"We’re gonna make it real simplet’s gonna be a revenge movie," said Saulnier. "No one can steal that plot… we’re just gonna do a new take on it. So the narrative started to take shape. I was exploring various complexities of my own emotions: fatherhood, an aging parent, and wanting to place blame on certain things, and it all worked out where I was able to focus on just the story itself and keep with a very simple narrative of a man on a revenge mission and really let the character dictate where I went. I also pulled from what I would do—what if the everyman was thrust into a very traditional revenge scenario."
While dark humor is a central element of the feature, guns and gun violence are nevertheless fully on display. This very American story, nevertheless, appeared to win the approval of the heavily French audience with a warm applause following the film's debut screening. But the French were also fascinated by the availability of guns and the current gun debate that has been covered here in the press.
"The one thing about the easy access to guns in America is that it makes for good storytelling," Saulnier said during the Q&A. The comment may have fallen a bit flat to a crowd not used to living with such laws—or lack of laws, in this case—but while Saulnier said the film may hint at the larger national conversation in the U.S., he didn't want Blue Ruin to fully take on the political question of guns.
"I wanted the film to be a little more neutral," he said. "So there’s instances where it’s very obvious that we’re poling at gun control laws and instances where having a gun saves the day, literally. My own views are very pro-gun control but I didn’t want the film to be part of the debate… It’s an easy choice for me and I wish it would be an easier choice for America."
Winning audience approval from a Cannes audience would certainly be a gratifying achievement for most filmmakers, but Saulnier also achieved another feat at the festival that is also elusive. His film received a distribution deal back home, so it will make its way to U.S. theaters after it finishes its festival run. Murder Party also received a theatrical release, though he said he still has yet to make money on that project. The next elusive challenge will be to turn that experience into a viable career trajectory.
"I am very patient and I know you have to pay your dues and I’m happy to do it… I’ve been working for over a decade trying to get here and now that I have, I feel like I belong. As for my next project, the pressure’s on. Doors are opening but I gotta step through the right one… There are lots of opportunities that are out there. My main goal is just to not blow them."