Every homeless man has a story. And in the case of Dwight Evans, the bearded hermit of the minimalist thriller “Blue Ruin,” it’s a minor epic.
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s film is about a blood feud, the crippling impact of long-ago murders on a drifter who is spurred to action only when he learns that a killer who destroyed his family is getting out of prison.
Dwight, played by Macon Blair in an utterly unaffected performance, has mastered laying low in the little Delaware town where he lives. He sneaks baths in the odd vacant beach cottage, Dumpster-dives for food and amusement park tickets and lives in his rusted, bullet-hole-riddled car far off the beaten path.
But as sneaky as he is, the cops know him. And when they warn him a murderer is about to get out of jail, Dwight sells recyclables for gas money, pulls the car battery out of mothballs and sends his sister a postcard of warning.
He doesn’t have enough for a gun, so he rummages through pickups in the parking lot of a local honky-tonk. “Blue Ruin” is a ringing endorsement for the virtues of keeping a trigger lock on your pistol. Because without a firearm, revenge comes with a knife and a brutal encounter in the men’s room of the bar the ex-con visits the minute he’s out of prison.
We pick up Dwight’s story in bits and pieces, his obsession with old photo albums and high school yearbooks, some of it from a chat with his sister.
The violence is immediate, bloody and personal. Blair and his writer-director limit Dwight’s cunning to things he picked up being homeless. He sets a simple trap here, clumsily fails to cover his tracks there. This is just how somebody living off the grid might get away with a revenge killing. Until the other family comes hunting (shotguns, crossbows) for payback.
The dialogue is hard-boiled in the extreme, never more than when Dwight tracks down an old high school buddy (Devin Ratray, excellent) because he remembers the guy’s into guns, as indeed a lot of the people in Dwight’s corner of Virginia are.
“No speeches,” Ben (Ratray) warns about revenge killing. “No talkin’. You point the gun, you shoot the gun.”
“Blue Ruin” stumbles only when it violates Ben’s rules in the third act. Repeatedly. The fact that one of the people Dwight is feuding with is an unrecognizable Eve Plumb — Jan from the 1970s TV series “The Brady Bunch” — makes up for some of that.
It’s a patient film, taking the time to set up Dwight’s manner of living, the hows and how-tos of homelessness. Saulnier tracks Dwight from the dumpy beach town onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, from the seedy bars to the remote homesteads where violent people can target-practice with no neighbor to fuss at them for the racket.
Saulnier wastes barely a moment of screen time in this grim and gripping slice of Southern Gothic. “Blue Ruin” joins “Shotgun Stories” and “Joe” as vivid reminders that however homogenized American culture seems, there are still pockets that are distinct, with people who live by their own rules and their own bloody code.
(At the Alamo Drafthouse.)