I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
An assured debut from actor and frequent Jeremy Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair (great first name, unfortunate connotations deriving from the second), I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore deposits itself in similarly unsophisticated, dark criminal underbellies as Saulnier’s, but Blair adorns his tale with a veneer of pitch-black humour, and where Saulnier operates in an arena of taut linearity, Blair (who also wrote the screenplay), embraces the shaggy dog narrative of a plot content to amble waywardly to its ultimate destination.
The title suggests a level of existential angst the picture doesn’t, in all honesty, really comes to grips with, although I’m not sure it really wants to. It’s an oddball name for an oddball movie – not at all a character piece based around Nordic soul searching – and intimations of pervading ennui are continually shrugged off by the convulsively funny antics and exchanges into which any given scene sidesteps.
Assistant nurse Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), for all her vocalisations that “Everyone is an asshole” and “Pretty soon, I’ll just be carbon, and none of it matters”, is too motivated, to roused to righteous ire, to sink wholeheartedly into nihilistic despair. Her quest for her stolen laptop (and grandmother’s silverware) doesn’t end when it is recovered; she desires a confrontation with the perpetrator, but more than that she is trying to prove something, to reach an unattainable goal, “For people not to be assholes”.
Like anyone who finds them “falling down”, it isn’t just a single incident (the violation of her home) that triggers Ruth; it’s that it’s the final straw on top of all the other conspiring elements in her life. From the first scene, darkly comic unease (and Blair’s twisted tone) is the order of the day, illustrated by an old patient’s uncensored last words (“Keep your gigantic monkey dick… out of my good pussy!”). Naturally, Ruth can’t tell the relatives.
Then there’s Blair’s cameo, spoiling the novel Ruth is reading (the Elsewhere Saga), and the arrival of neighbour Tony (Elijah Wood), at whom she hurls dog-doo (“You’ve been shitting in my yard!”) That she misses is a good indication of a movie where very little goes according to anyone’s plan (protagonist and antagonist alike).
Every scene in Ruth’s quest is lit up by vignettes of peculiarity. The detective on the case (Gary Anthony Williams) is dismissive of her demands for demonstrable investigation (“Why don’t you want to help me? Isn’t it your job?”), to the point where he gets upset over her upset. With Tony in tow, an inept but good-hearted, rat’s-tailed hipster equipped with throwing stars and trust in Jesus – queried by Ruth on his praying, he replies “You asked for help, I asked for help. That’s how things get done” – she tracks down the laptop on her own recognisees, and then the silverware.
There, an altercation with a very old man (Myron Natwick, looking like he’s stepped out of Poltergeist) finds him breaking her finger and Tony clocking him one. There’s a lot of clocking going on in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. And, while their journey is fraught with injury and mishap, Ruth and Tony prove surprisingly competent, more through luck than anything resembling aptitude, and often to hilariously gruesome ends.
Ruth: Did you do those tattoos yourself?
Marshall: Yeah, sure.
Ruth: They’re fucking stupid.
Every character here is memorable, from appearance to dubious disposition. Christian (Devon Graye, bearing a passing resemblance to the egg-sucking Nazi in A Fistful of Dynamite) is anything but, so thoroughly reprehensible that he takes shits in peoples’ lavatory cisterns. Accordingly, there’s only entailing mirth when Ruth batters him with the plaster-of-Paris imprint of his own shoe, and he flees straight into the path of a bus.
The final act finds her forced into a robbery with small-time crazies Marshall (David Yow) and Dez (Jane Levy). Following a very bloody standoff that simultaneously juggles the gross, comical and gripping, she flees into the woods pursued by Marshall, where she resorts to insulting her pursuer before lobbing rocks at him. And comes out on top (helped in some measure by an impromptu reptile). By this point, Blair has built up an anything-might-happen scenario, such that an anguis ex machina seems entirely reasonable.
Ruth: Yeah, yeah. What would Jesus do, right?
Melanie Lynskey has worked consistently over the years, but this might be her brightest movie role since her debut in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (obviously, it was Oor Kate who went on to the fame and glory). Ruth’s end-of-her-tether unwillingness to let it lie is marvellously complemented by Tony’s earnest sincerity; Wood is always a good choice for earnestness, and sincerity. If they’re an unlikely duo, the fact of Tony caring – his essential decency – is ultimately the tonic that enables Ruth to persevere yet awhile longer in this world (Blair plays with an “Is he, or isn’t he?” moment in respect of Tony’s survival, but to go for the negative would have jarred too much with a movie that, in whatever offbeat way, is taking its lead protagonist on an upward path).
Tony also offers a tempering influence on Ruth’s unleashed capacity to push it further and further. At the beginning, she lets it lie when customers drop items on the floor of the supermarket and cut into the queue ahead of her; before long, she’s calling them out on their indolence and cutting in herself. The first sign of a kindred spirit is not that Tony is reading the same book, but that he objects to spoilers (“Don’t tell me what happens, I hate that”; quite right too, that’s why I put warnings on reviews*).
Marshall: She’s ripping up yard art!
There also seems to be a suggestion of universal balance at work, bellying Ruth’s sense of futility; she asks “What are we doing here, in the world?”, but Tony professes no such doubts. Indeed, he’s most clear when Ruth goes over the line, ripping up yard art (“It’s not your lawn tiger” and so inviting bad karma. Her penance is becoming an accessory to the bloody final act, that nearly does for Tony. Lynskey measures a character who is fearful but determined, lost but resourceful, just right. We completely buy that she’d insult the man (Chris Rumack) into whose residence she has just insinuated herself (“I can see why he turned out like he did” she says to Christian’s father), regardless of whether that’s very wise; nothing she does is very wise, but it works, give or take.
Wood has never been more goofily likeable, from congratulating Christina’s stepmother Trixie (Christine Woods) on her coffee (“Thanks for the cappuccino. The foam was amazing”) to showing rudimentary computer skills (“You’re so sly, but so am I”: obviously a fan of Manhunter). And even less convincing ones with throwing stars (although, like Jack Burton, he hits a target – sort of – when lives depend on it). He has a magnificently expressive pooch too (witness its reaction to “It’s butthole time!”).
In some respects, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore recalls the shambling gait of the Coen Brothers’ stoner take on Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski; both begin with a robbery that initiates a spurt of amateur detective work, in which the protagonists succeed through luck rather than judgement or skill.
But, while Blair’s movie is much bloodier and less cartoonish, it’s also possibly more optimistic and burdened with more heart; it is, after all, a vision of her dead grandmother that leads Ruth to the imperilled Tony and so provides her with an answer when she most needs it. This is great, at times queasy, fun, and shows Macon Blair as a ridiculously competent all-rounder (at least he has the restrain not to furnish the score as well – he had to make do with the fine tuning of his brothers Will and Brooke).
*Addendum 21/07/22: Now found on the home page.