“I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” begins with a litany of reasons to validate the film’s title, which, on the National Standardized Spectrum of Suck, range from an old woman spewing racist bile to a careless man spoiling the ending of a good book. Coming off a rocky 2016, humanity at its worst is something we can all relate to, and the film reconciles our common familiarity with all things awful through a darkly-funny crime caper — one that is tinged with both melancholy and, ultimately, a sense of hope.
Such a film is one that fit right at home at the Sundance Film Festival. In January, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for a dramatic film, the top award at Sundance. The win surprised writer/first-time-director Macon Blair, whose expectations for the festival were limited to a short, email-less vacation in Park City, Utah. Yet, all signs pointed to the film being a hit, because Netflix picked up the distribution rights even before the festival began.
Netflix did so with good reason, because the story is a brilliantly poignant mixture of hilarity and sadness. When we meet Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), she’s had enough of society and its awful inhabitants. So when her house is burglarized, she enlists the help of her eccentric neighbor, Tony (Elijah Wood), to hunt down the burglars.
Eventually, Ruth and Tony’s hunt for the burglars evolves into a search for justice itself. “The thing they’re chasing after is the idea of people behaving better towards each other,” Blair said. “It’s an abstract, impossible thing for her to achieve. There’s no way that she can successfully complete that mission, but it struck me as a fun mission to give her nonetheless.” In this regard, the futility of Ruth’s mission invests the viewer in her trials and travails. We want Ruth to succeed because we’ve all felt alienated toward others before.
Although Ruth’s mission is futile, the film doesn’t dive into a dark and overly pessimistic tone — it’s also quite humorous. Navigating the line between humor and melancholy might seem difficult, but it came naturally for Blair. “When I was writing and shooting, it just felt natural for me to have a scene where something funny, quirky or slapstick was happening, and then have it shift gears abruptly into mayhem and horror,” he said. In this sense, we find ourselves chuckling throughout the film, but also wondering if such a reaction is appropriate. This isn’t to say that the film finds its humor in crudeness, but rather, that it uses humor to precipitate bleakness. Despite its blend of humor and darkness, the film never veers too far into either direction, but instead strikes an even balance of both.
The film’s balanced tone is due in large part to the two leads: Melanie Lynskey as the melancholy Ruth, and Elijah Wood as the hopeful Tony. Blair said that he had been a long time fan of Lynskey, and he praised her ferocity, which comes in handy when she confronts the burglars. But Blair also commended her vulnerability, and when Ruth’s faith in humanity dips, we feel as heartbroken as she does. But like most of us in regard to our favorite actors, Blair just wanted to see Lynskey in a genre film fighting criminals with knives and shotguns.
The counterpoint to Ruth is her neighbor, Tony, a flail-wielding eccentric who, in an alternate universe of boundless TV and film crossovers, would bond over obscure melee weapons with Dwight from “The Office.” Though Wood’s character is initially an obnoxious one, his offscreen likability translates to a character that was affable and charming. “I wanted to be able to use that inherent charisma that (Elijah) has. Even when he’s leaving dog shit on a character’s front lawn, you’re on his side anyway because he’s likable,” he added.
The characters of “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” represent the conflict between pessimism and optimism, and while the film offers some resolution to this difference in ideologies, perhaps it doesn’t need to. Humanity will always produce its fair share of thieves, racists and spoiler spewers, but the film posits that there are some who don’t come anywhere near the Suck Spectrum. Such people are worth latching onto, and in the words of Macon Blair, “It’d be nice if everybody could be a little more decent to each other.” Such a hope, like Ruth’s quest for justice, might be futile. But it’s a hope that keeps us going.
“I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” releases on Netflix on Feb. 24.
Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].