Welcome to the 9th annual Fantastic Fest film festival here in Austin, TX. This is my daily recap which over the next week will primarily recap the film experiences I have as well as touch on the mental and physical status of the Festival going folk, myself included. My entertainment is guaranteed but please, pray for my well being. To the fest!
Blue Ruin is about revenge, a wronged man seeking to dole out some justice in the world. It is a simple concept, a simple movie but one executed in a very controlled but intensely powerful way. It is easy to overdo these types of films and very difficult to strike just the right chord to elicit sympathy and understanding, and not venture into excessive violence or gratuity. Blue Ruin hits all the right notes.
The film follows Dwight (Macon Blair) as a homeless man, living out of a dilapidated car on the beach of a coastal town. He comes across as a broken man, seemingly resigned to a simpler existence, functioning but clearly avoiding something. One morning he is awoken by a police officer whereupon he, and the audience, learns that the man who murdered his parents a few years earlier is set to be released from jail. This sets into Dwight into motion, returning to his hometown and the friends and family he left behind years ago to seek retribution. Things are not as simple as all that, one act of revenge perpetrates another and soon the murderer’s family is seeking revenge as he did.
The first act of the movie is pretty sparse on dialogue and it rests on the performance of Macon Blair to draw us into the film and the characters pain and motives. He achieves this with distinction. I cannot remember the last time I saw a quiet but powerful performance. Lacking a large amount of dialogue, the fact that Blair invokes so much sympathy and sadness is astonishing. The rest of the cast turn in performances worthy of the rest of the film, notably Devin Ratray as an old friend of Dwight. They all contribute to the layers of emotion in the film and solidify it greatly.
The film not only deals with revenge and the toxicity of it but also about how people deal with pain, running away from it or avoiding it entirely. Issues of loyalty and morality all come to the fore. The film has a simple concept but it is well crafted and executed. At times brutal, at times subdued, always engrossing, Blue Ruin is an extremely accomplished take on the revenge genera.
One of the newest acquisitions to the Drafthouse Films distribution company, Cheap Thrills continues their remit, to find and promote some of the edgier and potentially overlooked fares cinema has to offer. Previous offerings such as Four Lions, Klown and The Act of Killing being amongst my favorite and most memorable films of the last few years.
Craig (Pat Healy) is facing difficult times, he has a wife and child, a foreclosure notice on his apartment and has just lost his job as a mechanic due to downsizing. He ventures into a seedy bar for some much needed consolation and encounters Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend from school now working as a debt collector. Reunited after 5 years the friends share a drink and stories about how their lives haven’t quite turned out so well. They soon encounter an ostentatious couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton). Colin is a flamboyant type, throwing around huge sums of money on drinks and bribes to the bartender to overlook his drug taking while Violet seems content to look on with cold amusement. A cheeky bet on Colin’s part prompts Vince to get a woman to slap him in the face in return for $200. Sensing their need for cash, the ‘dares’ set by Colin escalate further and further with the reunited friends soon competing with each other do debase themselves first and grab the cash. As the stakes get higher, so do the dares become more disturbing.
Koechner (Anchorman, Extract) revels in his role as the organ grinder making his monkeys dance for the pleasure of his wife. Paxton (The Last House on the Left) does fine in her role as essentially a bored young wife seeking amusement, there’s little more given to her to do unfortunately. The core of the film belongs to Embry (Empire Records) and Healy (The Innkeepers) though as the old buddies reunited in this shit storm of insanity. Both turn in great work, there is enough in each of their performances that all of us will connect with then and that is the main crux of the film, that we buy into these increasingly elaborate and disturbing challenges for the sake of a few dollars more. Really relatable portrayals of well written and rounded characters make this the case here and the film succeeds as a result.
In the Q&A they revealed the film was shot in chronological order, to help ramp up the mindset as things get increasingly fucked up in the film. We are not treated to sudden jumps in logic but rather a slow burn, we connect with these men, become engrossed and travel with them on this journey. The shoot lasted only 14 days which is very impressive but also may account for some of the momentum the picture has. There are some gross out scenes, there are moments where you will catch yourself whispering ‘no, no, no’ and then gleefully watch one of the central pair commit to the requested insanity. It is a thrill ride but overall it is a gradual descent for the two men firstly realizing the financial benefits outweigh the personal embarrassment before questions over morality and eventual physical harm arise as things pick up pace.
The movie deals with themes of class and the financial state many people are involved in right now. Underneath its obvious ‘car crash’ black comedy lies a social commentary, how ugly wealth can turn people, the desperation of some and steps ordinary people will take to protect themselves and loved ones. Some may sympathize with the decisions made, understanding the characters plight, even if you’re an insensitive bastard the physical and emotional ride this film takes you on will still entertain you tremendously. One of my favorites of the Fest and another great and worthy addition to the Drafthouse lineup.
Afflicted is another in the line of those ‘found footage’ movies, but with a slightly more updated twist. We have two friends, Clif (Clif Prowse) and Derek (Derek Lee), the latter of which finds out he has a potentially fatal brain clot. In response the pair decide to take what may be their last chance to travel around the world. Clif, an aspiring filmaker is determined to chronicle their trip and so takes a multitude of cameras and streams footage of their adventures to a website for friends and family to see. One night, while in Barcelona, Derek has a encounter with a woman and they find him unconscious and bleeding. Soon, this encounter develops into a much more serious problem.
The film touches on themes reminiscent of Chronicle and American Werewolf in London, an incident and resulting change testing a friendship. It is handled well and the ‘transformation’ of the afflicted Derek is nicely done. The real life friendship between the two stars comes to the fore and its as easy to get invested in that as it is to whoop along as Derek tests the limits of his new found powers or new cravings…yes, plain and simple we have a case of Vampirism folks. The emotion is solid and the action scenes, notably encounters with police teams are very well executed. The backdrop of Europe is a stunning one and a great setting for the film.
Criticisms? Well, it gets a little far-fetched at times. The opening is somewhat cheesy but harmless enough if you can get past it. My biggest issue would be the last act of the movie where things get very talky and expositiony. I can’t help thinking there was another way to wrap things up with more finesse.
The characters are solid enough to make you give a damn, some of the camera work is great (notably first-person sequences) so overall a solid and surprisingly good debut. The main duo co-wrote and co-directed the feature as well as starring in it which makes the film even more impressive. Well worth checking out.