Nothing in the description of Blue Ruin, the second feature and critical breakthrough of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, makes it sound like much. And, if were are being mercilessly honest, that’s because there's really not that much to it. But it’s the very definition of a thing that's more than the sum of its parts: a stock revenge thriller put in a blender with a stock regional indie, and somehow, the alchemical reaction that occurs from that unusual but not exactly groundbreaking collision of tones results in a film of uncommon, gripping freshness. It's a lean piece of thriller filmmaking with a potent human core, the kind that encourages one to think about making some comparisons that could be awfully dangerous if you let them get out of control. A translation into film of the raw-nerve prose of Ernest Hemingway, that's one; or the thing you get if you let David Gordon Green direct a Samuel Fuller movie.

There's certainly a lot of the abstraction and wordless character building of Green at his best in the film's early going, when it introduces us to our protagonist, Dwight Evans (Macon Blair). He's a dirty drifter with an enormous thatch of facial hair and an animalistic knack for keeping himself alive outside of the normal channels of civilisation; Blair's performance makes him absolutely captivating without begging for our sympathy or downplaying the degree to which this is a person that you would probably find very uncomfortable to be around. This beginning sequence sets a high bar that, in truth, Blue Ruin does not reach again; it never relies so fearlessly on purely visual storytelling and the inductive editing that pull us into the curious life of this outsider by having to do all the work ourselves to figure him out.

When we do, eventually, figure him out - he shaves off his beard to signify the shift into more conventional genre territory - we have found that Dwight survived a years-ago family tragedy that left him and his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) on the outs with one another; he reaches out to contact her after being informed by a police representative that Wade Cleland (Sandy Barnett), the man responsible for their trauma, is out of prison. More specifically, he reaches out to her after he's killed that man in a gas station restroom, and comes to realise that this puts him and Sam and Sam's kid at risk from further retaliation by the Cleland clan. And thus begins the process by which this rather simple man, a mere dumpy schlub to look at him, wills himself into becoming a hardened killer, driven only by vengeance and the desire to protect what's left of his family.

It's all much more mournful in execution than exhilarating; we get to liking Dwight, and there's not a single Cleland who isn’t a vile shitstain, but there’s not any triumphalism on his part or the movie’s when he stomps down the path of righteous anger. Just a sad acceptance of how easy it is for a not-killer to kill, in the right circumstances. Saulnier treats this all with rough-hewn efficiency, taking no interest in stopping off for moralising or soul-searching: it is a brutal procedural at heart, present with a curt lacks of sentiment tempered by a surprising vein of wry comedy. The characters all seem vaguely aware of the arbitrary absurdity of the path they've thrown themselves into, and treat it with an acerbic bemusement that suits it. Particularly Ben (Devin Ratray), a high school acquaintance of Dwight's - the film does not imply that "friend" would an appropriate word - a pudgy gun expert who briefly serves as the film's kind of sort of Greek Chorus, offering wisdom and moral context while also indicating through his tone and peculiar bluntness that the whole matter of Blue Ruin is on the fucked-up side, all things considered.

The loose, even ungainly vibe of the occasional humor meshes well with the film's overall fuzzy DIY feel; this is American Indie Low-Fi through and through, with all of that styles strengths and none of its most debilitating weaknesses. Long-time readers will perhaps recall my seething hatred of unkempt sound recording techniques in low-budget filmmaking, and will hopefully share in my gladness that Blue Ruin's sound is as sharp and clear as the cinematography is hazy and diffuse - deliberately, I am sure. It is a particular strength of the film, in fact, that it depicts its rural Virginian locations with such scruffiness; it grounds the movie in a sense of physical actuality that helps to make the florid generic gestures of the story seem more meaningfully tied to the characters and their world. I have never been to the part of the world which Blue Ruin wraps around its cast, but the film offers, overall, the same half-impressionist, half-realist appeal of something like Green’s Undertow.

For all the ways that Blue Ruin does a good job of complicating and deepening the revenge movie framework it lives in, though, it's important not to miss the forest for the trees: it’s also a really damn good revenge movie. In part because of the same things that make it a good regional indie film: the leanness of it brings the same kind of deliberateness to the violence that it brings to the landscapes. The early sequence that finds Dwight killing Wade is a marvel at showing the lingering, awful way that human beings die, with more blood than seems possible, and blocking of Wade’s final twitches that makes it one of the most truly unpleasant death scenes in recent cinema. And this is clearly meant to evoke not just disgust in the viewer, but an awareness of Dwight’s own disgust at what he’s done, and what he will now have to do more of. Even as much as it makes no pretense to liking any of the Clelands, Blue Ruin doesn’t pretend that they’re deaths are anything but ugly and wasteful.

So by "really damn good revenge movie", I do not, to be sure, mean that it's a rousing piece of red meat for the action crowd (even when it has the wiry tension of a no-bullshit thriller, it never comes close to being an action movie). I mean that it showcases the hardness of revenge on the man executing it, and the senselessness of it, but also depicting it in a way that allows us to view him with sympathy and understanding for why he commits to this path even when it's clear to him that he's not equipped to be an indefatigable assassin. At its most basic, this is a human-oriented retelling of the boilerplate tropes of a revenge thriller, giving us the best of both worlds, and landing with a forcefulness that makes it far more memorable and interesting than its familiar ingredients ought to permit.