It would be pat and self-satisfied to say that ennui, confusion, and moral frustration are the unshakable symptoms of that storied creature who is called “modern man”. In truth, this is The Human Condition, and always has been. Our quest to find reason and moral order in this mess of meanness and indifference is what leads us to each other, to community, and to God. One of my favorite axioms, as simple as it is resonant, is “We’re all in this together”. A universal and innate human drive for justice and understand is the foundation of every friendship and faith. Macon Blair’s startling and subtly profound directorial debut seems to spend more time on the pain than the affection, but it is there, if you are patient, and willing to look. I was reminded of Jody Hill’s Observe and Report and James Gunn’s Super. All three films are about imperfect and troubled heroes/heroines who are pushed over the edge by the frustrating injustice the world seems to allow and take things into their own hands, with violent and wildly unpredictable results. Like the former two “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” is a fascinating blend of black comedy, drama, and shocking action that reaches almost absurd adventure, yet still remains in a world recognizably our own.
But I get ahead of myself.
Meet Ruth. A disenchanted, 30-something nurse, she goes through life with a keen awareness of the general indecency and disfranchisement around her, but like so many, she’s grown complacent in her acceptance of the everyday pricks and annoyances around her. She’s not indifferent, just impotent. She’s irritated, fed-up, but what can she do? A rude driver in the parking lot inconsiderate of the pedestrian, a man in the bar who carelessly spoils the book she’s reading. Ruth can grunt and sigh and quietly swear, but it seems like this is the extend of her expression of action. Futile gestures in an uncaring world.
Then they stole her laptop, and her grandmother’s silver and broke the camel’s back.
A Southern hipster Christian nerd (you know the type) with a rat-tail and proclivity for weapons of the Far East, Tony is neighbor Ruth barely even acknowledged before. We’re like that, really. Life isn’t a sitcom, a geographic adjacency doesn’t necessarily translate to human familiarity. But Tony let his dog crap on Ruth’s lawn one day too late. Ordinarily, Ruth would pick it up to herself, cursing and mutter “I have a sign!” under her breath. Now, she confronts her neighbor. He’s instantly apologetic, explaining that’s not who he is. Through one development or another, Ruth recruits Tony as her partner- after all, the police are hardly helping- in a strange investigation that will take them to pawn shops and junk yards, to the lair of drug-fused maniacs and their rich parents who really don’t care.
The villains in this piece, true to its form, are both threatening and risible. The bored rich kid pulling stupid insignificant capers for kicks. His manic, tweaking girlfriend. The psychopath who believes eating cat meat gives him the power of invisibility. These oddball outliers have an absurdity to them, but they are a genuine menace, and they bring the theme of man’s inhumanity to man to Ruth’s life at a level previously only implicit, thrusting her into action.
The relationship between Ruth and Troy is really what drives the story. This film is a lot of things. A hilarious black comedy, a thrilling Southern Noir, and a keen and incisive morality play. The character study is what brings it all together. Ruth has had quite enough of people treating each other like objects and obstacles, but her friendship- and perhaps something more- with the oddball next door, helps temper this rage and show her the other side of humanity. It’s as subdued as these characters almost holding hands as they sit side by side in church, and it’s easy to overlook in this violent and crazy caper, but ultimately, as unlikely as it seems, this is a redemptive and life-affirming story. Sometimes you have to see the worst of what people are capable of to appreciate the other side. After all, if you recognize the bad as such, doesn’t mean you have a moral center, something that can be put to use and strengthened by others who are mad as hell and aren’t gonna take it anymore.
The Christian themes are an interesting and refreshing motif. Ruth is surprised when she finds Tony praying before they go to confront the people who have her laptop. “You asked for help, I asked for help.” He explains. “That’s how things get done.” Later she accepts his invitation to his church. The film is not didactic preachy. Instead it plays out organically, and lets hope, faith, and love play out as things that gradually come to you if you meet the right people and let go of your bitterness for a spell. Let Go, Let God.
The setting is well utilized. This is not the stereotypical South that Hollywood likes to portray of dueling banjos and trailer parks, but a real and real place of quiet people living their lives at a slower pace than up North. Pet friendly, plenty of clutter lying around in the backyard, snakes in the woods, and rich folk in big houses a stretch away from the suburbs. The land is rural and the buildings are older than the big city, but people are the same wherever you go.
Melanie Lynskey is extraordinary as a woman who’s been too quiet for too long. She is terrific in her range, whether she’s morosely describing the death of one of her patients, now reduced to carbon, or running through the woods, escaping snake and psychopath alike in the riveting climax. I’d previously enjoyed her voice work on “The Life and Times of Tim”, giving airs to the adorable and unapproachable Becky. Here Lynskey helps craft an electrifying picture of a person whose disdain does not negate her own humanity. “The way people treat each other is disgusting” she says, and we agree with her. But though she springs into action, this is no senseless vigilante porn. Ruth is righteously outraged, but she still vomits when the guns go off. The nature of her motivation is not physical revenge, but sociological satisfaction, a refreshingly mature angle.
Elijah Wood, as always, is in top form. If the character seems a little too wrapped up in quirks initially, this is only an affected outer layer that we can eventually see through to Tony’s true nature, a bright and sensitive young man with a subtle charm to his idiosyncrasy. He shares Ruth’s disgust with the crimes inflicted upon her, but not her disenchantment with the world at large. After all, he can be her friend, and help her get the justice she deserves. Maybe that means there’s hope for the rest of us. Lynskey and Wood have an intriguing chemistry. It can be hard to find affection in the middle of a caper this deep and bizarre, but it’s there when you’re looking, even more so when you’re not, perhaps. Through the bond of a shared experience, you get used to people, and likewise for you. If they make a team this oddly inept-but-effective when it comes to fighting crime, imagine what Ruth and Tony can do during peacetime. But watch out for those ninja stars, cause Wood wields them at a critical point in as satisfying a moment of shocking but just violence I’ve seen since Ronnie Barnhardt took on the flasher.
Ultimately what it comes down to is exchange between Ruth and the father of the thief. The movie’s theme is deceptively simple, yet brilliant. There are some things that shouldn’t happen. People shouldn’t act this way. And sometimes they have to be called out.
“You can’t do that to people.” She tells him, and I am reminded of The Crimson Bolt’s passionate, just invocation of morality and order. “The rules were made a long time ago! They don’t change!”
The father disagrees
“You say that like it means something.” He responds, indifferent, pragmatic. “I don’t condone my son’s behavior, but anyone can do anything if you let them. Welcome to the world.”
But it’s not a world she can accept. And she makes that clear.
The father, bored with this confrontation and all too familiar of his son’s antics, tries to buy Ruth off. But she’s not her for money. So what does she want?
“For people to not be assholes.”
Is that too much to ask?