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Film Review: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017; Directed by Macon Blair)

Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is frustrated and exasperated at how terrible people are. She’s worn out by their callous unconcern, the daily toxic leakage they allow to seep into the world. Quietly and meekly, she politely watches and listens as they cut in front of her in the grocery store checkout line, drop things they don’t pick back up, let their dogs shit on her lawn and fail to scoop it up, ruin the shocking plot twists of sword-and-sorcery book series, idle their ridiculous gas-guzzling megatrucks, kill each other in mass shootings, and go to their deaths despising racial minorities with profane bitter-end prejudice. Drummed into existential despair, Ruth is discouraged by the endless cycle of taking and feels like nothing seems to matter much anymore.

The opening minutes of Macon Blair’s cumbersomely-titled I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (henceforth to be referred to as “the film” to cut waste from the word count) appear to portend a withering, darkly comedic commentary on American society and culture adrift in the helpless numbness of the post-capitalist age. Blair’s directorial debut, a success at Sundance that was thereafter picked up and released by Netflix, isn’t not that, but it does cross into violent, Tarantino-influenced indie crime-thriller territory before too long. It’s adequately gripping and plenty weird enough to pull off this turn, but the mordant sociopolitical thrust of its beginning fades as the guns start to go off towards the climax.

Ruth, an unattached nursing assistant whose only friend is a married mother (Lee Eddy) who can’t fully engage with her friend’s raging ennui, reaches the end of her tether when her home is burgled. Her laptop, grandmother’s silverware, and prescription pills are stolen. Consumer technology, omnipresent pharmaceuticals, cherished but useless mementoes of a vanished past: ordinary contemporary America succinctly embodied. The police are little to no help, an overburdened bureaucracy that can offer no justice or meaningful recompense, and compensates for its general impotence by blaming the victims for the crimes against them (Ruth left her back screen door unlocked, after all; she was practically asking to be burgled).

Seething at the sense of violation invoked by the robbery, Ruth takes matters into her own hands when she finds the burgler’s footprint in her backyard and gets a ping on the locator app for her computer. Enlisting her oddball neighbour Tony (Elijah Wood), a martial arts enthusiast and slightly-flaky Christian believer, as “back-up”, Ruth sets about reacquiring her stolen possessions and perhaps even bringing the burglers to account for their crimes. This effort lands her and Tony in serious danger when she attracts the attention of a criminal trio (David Yow, Jane Levy, and Devon Graye) targetting the home of a wealthy lawyer (Robert Longstreet) and his wife (Christine Woods).

Lynskey and Wood, both actors who experienced their greatest onscreen success in Peter Jackson movies they made in their teens, are superb here, respectively deepening and redirecting how they are seen as performers. Lynskey projects a sense of plain reality, of the quotidian working-class grind elevated to a lofty philosophic perch of critical self-awareness. She doesn’t really, honestly believe that she can get people to stop being assholes, but she hopes some comfort and maybe even some wider good can come from trying. Wood, meanwhile, leans gamely into Tony’s single-male ridiculousness: he rolls up on confrontations armed with smoke bombs and nunchaku and shuriken, then pedantically mansplains the former’s Okinawan origins when Ruth scoffs at his ninja weapons; excitedly details the corporeal physics that go into an effective martial arts kick; pretends to hacker-level computer skills when all he’s doing is googling something; and offers to let her punch him in order to even up “the energy” between after his dog (named Kevin, which is hilarious for some reason) poops on her property and he fails to pick it up.

The darkest irony of Blair’s film is that far more ill than good comes from Ruth’s quest. She might regain prized possessions as well as an unlikely friend (or perhaps more) in Tony, but the price of her limited sense of closure is a deeply traumatic experience and a shocking body count. On a different level, too, Ruth is frustrated, but surely unsurprised, to find that pinpointing accountability for any bad deed is fiendishly difficult. The police are inept and unconcerned with solving her robbery case, but the assigned detective (Gary Anthony Williams) is also overstretched, stressed and shaken by the cavalcade of horrors he witnesses, and pained by a pending divorce. The people in possession of her stolen laptop purchased it with good money from a salvage yard, which is so full of discarded stuff that strict legality would be impossible for even a conscientious operator to establish and maintain. Even her burglar, a product of wealth and privilege who has fallen into a netherworld of vice but greets it with nothing resembling regret, confounds standard nature/nurture dichotomies and sorties in search of moral reckoning.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore references, in both its title and its overall thematic direction, a generalized, frequently-invoked, amorphously nostalgic sentiment that things are getting worse than they once were. This sentiment has gained the calcified certainty of a set ideology for many Americans, especially older and more conservative ones. Fox News supports the notion profitably every hour of the day, and Donald Trump, with his clumsy confidence man’s instinct for psychological wedges to gain leverage over his marks, used it cynically and ruthlessly to get elected President. Like Trump’s political messaging, Macon Blair’s film utilizes the fearful frisson of violent crime to emphasize this point about a decline into American carnage. Also like Trump, it’s hard to really believe in the truth of Blair’s invocation.

But this striking, oddly riveting, and very darkly funny film makes a potent case, in emotional philosophy terms if not in rational ones, for a downward decline in the norms of American society from the point of view of the young. It’s getting worse, sure, but it’s not clear why or who precisely is responsible, which accounts for the greatest share of the frustration.

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