I Don’t Feel at Home in the World Anymore captures that peculiar modern feeling that the world is a frustrating and mean place – but that ordinary folks can stand up and push back, though sometimes with hilarious and awkward results. Writer-director Macon Blair’s film contains bleak humor, affecting drama, and a bumbling crime story. The sad-sack characters and story compares well with Jeremy Saulnier’s film Blue Ruin, where Blair played the lead. Blair’s aesthetic is very much in line with his friend’s, but let’s be clear: Blair’s work in this film is not counterfeit Saulnier. Though they share sensibilities, Blair’s film is far more sarcastic and funny, which makes the harsher elements of the film pop quite effectively.
I Don’t Feel at Home in the World Anymore premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix had purchased the rights to the film before the festival even began, so they must have been delighted when Blair’s film won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for a dramatic film, the top award at the festival. The film was made available on Netflix at the end of February, and if you are at all a fan of Blue Ruin, you should add this film to your queue immediately.
The film tells an incredibly simple story: a depressed nurse’s assistant named Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is burgled, and after receiving very little help from the police, she decides to hunt down the thieves herself. With the help of a nerdy marial arts-obsessed neighbor named Tony (Elijah Wood), Ruth gets closer and closer to the dingy criminal underground of her ho-hum town. Their eyes are much bigger than their stomachs. Still, Ruth is quite the badass when her back is up against the wall.
I Don’t Feel at Home in the World Anymore has much more humor and sarcasm than the Saulnier films, lending the movie a less bleak tone. Even though most of the comedy has a decidedly dark lean to it, there are still quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. A lot of this is character-driven and situational, as Ruth and Tony navigate their mission with varying degrees of success. Don’t assume that this tone will remain consistent throughout, though. The film wanders into the same grisly territory as Blue Ruin and Green Room. Hands are blown off, people die, and the movie can get pretty brutal at times. Blair strikes a wonderful balance, so much so that even the climactic sequence has some levity to it.
The most impressive aspect of Blair’s film is apparent almost immediately; the director has an obvious knack for visual storytelling. The pre-amble of the film shows Ruth experiencing the jerkier examples of humankind. They range from a careless shopper plopping 30+ items into an express lane, beautifully framed so that you recognize that’s what is happening, to a dying old woman spewing horribly racists anti-Obama sentiments. It may not sound too hard to convey how annoying and ugly people can be, but you would be surprised how often these moments wade into “tell” territory. With Blair’s direction, it is all “show”.
This flavor of storytelling does not abate. Key clues, character moments, plot elements, and thematic points are all delivered with cinematic tact from Blair. A simple example early on in the film identifies one of the thieves with a simple match-cut between a footprint that Ruth has found and the foot it belongs to. Details like this exist throughout the film, and can reveal the mood of a character, the strain in a relationship, or even the next step in the unfolding of the decidedly noir-ish plot. It is astoundingly impressive, especially for a freshman filmmaker.
Remarkably, Ruth and Tony actually do quite well with their bumbling brand of vigilantism. They manage to find most of Ruth’s stolen belongings, but that isn’t quite enough for her. Ultimately, Ruth is looking for more than just things. She wants to re-discover the idea that, deep-down, people are not insufferable pricks just looking to screw each other over. And, while the things taken from her are important, Ruth would rather chastise the criminals for their behavior and convince them to be better people. This is the true theme of I Don’t Feel at Home in the World Anymore, not that people need to be punished for their transgressions, but that they need to be encouraged to improve.
It is a pleasing that Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair have had such success. The childhood friends have had an impressive run in the indie world through their peculiar combination of style and tone, and they shows no signs of slowing. The two are currently collaborating on Hold the Dark, where a wolf hunter tracks a young child through Alaska for some reason, with Blair writing and Saulnier directing. But, it is equally exciting to consider that Blair has his own voice and will offer up quality films like I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore. After this debut, it is clear that he is not a facsimile who exists in his friend’s shadow, but a smart and talented filmmaker in his own right.