Our plan on a recent Saturday was to go up to Bloor and see Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, which I’d been looking forward to for ages; everything was looking good to go and I decided to lie down for a twenty minute nap, easy to do as my wife said she was wide awake. I woke up an hour later, thirteen minutes before showtime, with Ally also fast asleep, her attempt to set the alarm, well, a failure. We rushed out and jumped into a cab, but the traffic was heavier than usual (the DVP was closed, and there was some kind of parade, oh, and God was toying with us) and eventually it became clear we’d miss the start, which I can’t stand to do, so we just turned round and came home. The big winners in this story are the cab driver, and also the dog, who wasn’t by himself for anywhere near as long as he was expecting. And also the restaurant on the next block from our place, that we ended up going to instead of the post-movie one we had in mind.
The losers, at least for that weekend, would be us, because we ended up watching Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin on demand (it’s also currently in theatres), and while it’s a respectable film, I can’t imagine it’s as stimulating as the Jarmusch would have been. The movie has a classic feel-good back-story – unhappy with where his filmmaking career was taking him, Saulnier put his family’s life savings, along with help from Kickstarter, into a showcase low-budget project. Sundance turned it down, but it was shown at Cannes, and it rose triumphantly out of the pack. Now in release, it’s getting lots of attention, and almost universal praise (95% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!)
For example, David Denby reviewed the film in The New Yorker, summing it up as “Saulnier’s successful attempt to build some creative space between the iron conventions of Hollywood revenge sagas and the informality of a movie made with friends” and finding fault only with the ending, which he thinks “overwhelms the modest, semi-parodistic realist style of this movie.” The British Sight and Sound went even further, saying the film is “surely worthy of the (John) Carpenter or even Jean-Pierre Melville comparisons you might care to throw at it.” It continues: “Yes, it’s modest in scale, but its craftsmanship is so genuine, its narrative so considered, its dramatic payoff so visceral, you can’t help thinking that if Saulnier can sustain this, we could be looking at the emergence of a major new filmmaker.”
A new space
In an interview in the same magazine, Saulnier talks about trying to “carve out a new space” by making a film “meant for the core genre audience, but (that) would also hopefully have enough story and character and raw emotion that it would appeal to broader audiences as well.” The genre in question is that of the loner/vigilante, entirely consumed by the desire for revenge for a past injustice, causing virtual rivers of blood to flow in his wake. Far from Charles Bronson territory though, the character here, Dwight, is a physically unimpressive drifter whose silence is that of a put-upon loser rather than a self-contained monolith. His life was derailed by the murder of his parents; when the perpetrator, Wade Cleland, is released from jail, a decade or so later, Dwight waits outside the prison, follows the Cleland family limousine that picks him up, and later stabs him to death in a roadhouse washroom. He gets away, but his car keys don’t, allowing the Clelands (who seem to operate entirely outside the usual operations of the law) to trace the vehicle back to his sister’s house (at which it’s registered) and so to set off a violent series of manoeuvres.
As everyone says, the film is distinguished by its attention to the contours of its central character and to surrounding detail; it’s the kind of movie in which, during a key and fraught conversation between Dwight and his sister at a diner, there’s a matter-of-fact interruption from a guy at the next table asking for the ketchup. It’s a very compact picture, lasting just ninety minutes, but somehow manages to feel both full of incident and yet relatively reflectively paced. And it’s forged from the duality of American culture; when he asks his sister if she has a gun in the house, she responds as if it’s the most absurd question possible, but to his best friend and the horrendous Cleland family, a household naturally accumulates guns the way you or I might stock up on cookies.
Awake at the right time?
Despite these strengths, I can’t really see what people respond to so enthusiastically in the film: this isn’t one of those occasions when genre conventions stimulate a filmmaker to achieve something transformative (the comparison with John Carpenter might be viable, but that with Jean-Pierre Melville seems just nuts to me). Dwight himself may be a well-conceived character of extremely modest traits, but he still achieves the usual Bronson-like feats of recovering at super-speed from nasty physical injuries, of outsmarting adversaries who seem better equipped for this in every possible regard, and so forth; the Cleland clan, for the most part, are garden variety monsters. At the end of the film, you can recite various moments and aspects that you liked, but beyond that, it’s hard to see where the experience really takes you. The film’s closing shots emphasize the placid normality that still persists in some of its earlier locations, suggesting how the disturbance that Dwight precipitated is ultimately localized, perhaps a necessary purging. But it also says in effect that the show is over, that we can put the whole thing back in the box and move on, that the “new space” Saulnier talks about is closing as efficiently as it opened up.
Of course, it’s possible I’m not the ideal viewer for the film. I guess I’d rather see the movie that implicitly precedes it, the one that shows us Dwight’s years of struggle, and how he became so all-consumed by the idea of murdering Wade. Or maybe I’d rather see a Jim Jarmusch version of it, marked by his customary deadpan contemplation, multicultural connection, mysterious interplay, hints of the beyond, by his films’ implicit suggestion of an extreme malaise in the governing pace and engorged complexity of mainstream culture. Only Lovers Left Alive is a genre film too, about vampires, but by all accounts, nothing about it seems limited by that. I’d really like to find out, but maybe, as I’m not a vampire myself, I’ll never be awake at the right time.