Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 12, 2015

Salvation; Blue Ruin

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:14 pm

Back in 1980, just after I had left the Trotskyist movement and thought that I would write the Great (or nearly great) American Novel, I took a writer’s workshop class at NYU’s School of Continuing Education that was almost totally worthless. The only thing that came out of it that stuck with me over the years was the teacher’s point that there are only about 10 plots in all of literature, with variants accounting for the tens of thousands of novels and screenplays. Probably the most familiar is the Road Story that can be found in both “Huckleberry Finn” and “On the Road”.

As I sat watching “Salvation”, the Strudel Western from Denmark that incorporates many of the Spaghetti Western genre elements from the 1970s, it occurred to me that Revenge plots are almost as ubiquitous as those involving the Road, maybe even more so. After discussing this film that was burdened with a number of problems but still worth seeing when it opens in NYC on February 27, I’ll say something about “Blue Ruin”, another Revenge movie that was made on a shoestring budget and was my pick for NYFCO’s best new director award for 2014.

The best reason to watch “Salvation” is its star Mads Mikkelsen, my favorite actor who plays Jon, a Danish soldier who has immigrated to America and become a farmer somewhere in the arid and windswept high plains—perhaps the Dakotas.

In the opening scene, Jon greets his wife and young son who have just gotten off the train to join him on the farm. After the three board a stagecoach to take them home, they discover that the two men sitting opposite them are up to no good. After taking repeated swigs out of a whiskey bottle, they make advances on Jon’s wife and pull a gun on him. A melee on the stage leads to him being thrown off and his wife and son being left to the two men’s malignant devices. When he catches up with the stage later on, he discovers the dead bodies of his wife and son and spots one of the two men with his pants down. It is obvious that he raped his wife before killing her. The two have also killed the two stagecoach drivers. He takes revenge on the two men using a rifle he finds nearby the coach and returns home to bury his wife and son.

It turns out that the rapist, who has just been released from prison, is the brother of a local businessman/gangster (somewhat after the fashion of the oligarchs being profiled in the series about condominiums in the NY Times) who has been buying up land in the area to sell to developers seeking to drill for oil, a resource more profitable than farmland. When the local sheriff, a man tainted by the corruption that is running rampant, arrests Jon and turns him over to the gangster bent on avenging his evil brother’s death, the plot machinery is set for an ever-escalating series of violent showdowns that will remind you of any number of Sergio Leone movies with overtones of “High Noon”, “Shane” and “Unforgiven” except with Danish subtitles.

What redeems this film from the ordinary is Mikkelsen’s performance as the wronged man whose hunger for revenge assumes biblical proportions, a role that he has reprised a number of times including “Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas”. There is not much for him to do in representing a rather one-dimensional character but there’s nobody better equipped for such a role.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the gang leader Delarue, a character that screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen must have fashioned after the cattle boss in “Shane”, a bad guy you just love to hate. Jensen also wrote the screenplay for “In a Better World”, a 2010 film that was a thoughtful and effective critique of revenge. Go figure.

“Salvation” opens at the IFC in NY on February 27th and is definitely worth watching, especially for those with the good sense to be Mads Mikkelsen fans.

I have to thank Jeff St. Clair for turning me on to “Blue Ruin”, a film that can be seen on Netflix streaming. It is one of the few films with a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes that deserves the accolades.

The film begins with an apparently homeless man pouring through garbage cans in a a beach resort town looking for his dinner. With his shaggy beard and hair, he looks like the last person imaginable to set out on a course of revenge that takes more nerve and more fighting skills than three Mads Mikkelsens put together.

Macon Blair plays the man who is living in a rusted out blue Pontiac that gives the film its title, a title that also suggests the existential peril that awaits his character, a lost soul named Dwight who is suffering a kind of posttraumatic stress following the murder of his parents.

When Dwight learns that their killer has just been released from prison, he undergoes a transformation both psychologically and physically. He shaves his beard, cuts his hair, and dons new clothes that give him the appearance of an aging preppie. With his doughy body, bland facial features and generally understated manner, he seems like the last person in the world to take on a cold-blooded killer whose family members appear as much of a desperado as him, including the women.

When Dwight catches up with family, who are celebrating his release at a roadside café, he hides out in the men’s room until the killer comes in to take a piss. When Dwight slits the throat of the much larger and tougher-looking man with a kitchen knife, you know that you are dealing with a man who has nothing to lose. After the family discovers that the paterfamilias is dead, the stage is set for an ever-escalating series of violent match-ups just like “Salvation” but done much more after the fashion of an indie made for Sundance than a Sergio Leone western.

The film was directed and written by Jeremy Saulnier, whose only credit before this was the 2007 horror-comedy “Murder Party” a sort of straight-to-video mess by most accounts. It is astounding that Saulnier could have risen to the heights of “Blue Ruin”, a film whose modest costs were covered by a Kickstarter campaign.

Saulnier’s most brilliant stroke was casting high-school buddy Macon Blair as the unlikely revenge-seeker Dwight. An April 18, 2014 NY Times article profiles the two men:

“For me, Macon was the whole movie, because I wanted to thrust a miscast character into a hard-core, brutal revenge movie,” Mr. Saulnier said. “What if this character wasn’t good at it? What if he lucked into fulfilling his revenge fantasy 18 minutes into the film and the rest of the film explored what happened after that?”

Though the script is ingeniously constructed, the two soon discovered that Mr. Blair’s concerns were reasonable. Nobody was jumping at the opportunity to finance a thriller that starred a relative unknown as a schlubby, traumatized beach bum who lives in the titular blue ruin of an old rusted car.

“We both had kids due in February 2013, which became a deadline that lit a fire under our butts,” said Mr. Saulnier, who felt that he would never take such a risk once his third child was born. “We had to make another last-ditch effort.”

He and his wife emptied their savings and retirement accounts. “My wife and I went into negative net worth,” he said. “Our AmEx was on standby, but we needed Kickstarter cash to bridge the gap. ‘Blue Ruin’ became everything we had, and all we could give, because it was likely the last film we’d ever make.”

If you see “Blue Ruin” on Netflix, you’ll likely agree with me that it being the last film they make is the least they have to worry about. I imagine that well-funded production companies will be beating on Saulnier’s door from now on flush with offers. Let’s hope that he maintains his indie cred.


  1. Why did it have Danish subtitles?

    Comment by godoggo — February 13, 2015 @ 3:56 am

  2. It had Danish subtitles because it is a Danish film. In the USA, the Danish characters get subtitles. In Denmark, the English-speaking characters get subtitles.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 13, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

  3. Oh. I thought I’d caught you. Oh well. It occurs to me though that all the Danes I’ve ever met spoke fluent and grammatically flawless English, but presumably the filmmakers knew what they were doing.

    Comment by godoggo — February 14, 2015 @ 3:40 am

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