Macon Blair has made a mark on independent cinema through his roles in bleakly, frenetically violent thrillers, films to which he brings a heartfelt awkwardness and charm. It’s no surprise, then, that his debut feature film follows this trend. With the ambitiously-titled I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Blair creates a world of misanthropy and helplessness – elements that combine into what could be a new American classic.
The genre-bending plot follows Ruth (performed with brilliance by Melanie Lynskey), a depressed woman whose disgust at humanity is pushed over the edge when her house is robbed. The police offer little assurance, so Ruth takes it upon herself to retrieve her stolen goods and restore justice. Joining forces with her neurotic, kung-fu-obsessed neighbor (Elijah Wood, who has never been funnier), Ruth tracks the criminals down – but she encounters chaos far beyond her reach once she gets close enough.
Blair commands his film with a strong Americana aesthetic, ranging from a backwoods criminal outpost (the film’s creepiest scene), an insanely disorganized pawn shop, the bland suburbs and a millionaire’s mansion. He populates his set pieces with hilarious details – the mansion’s lawn ornaments, the keyboard in the pawn shop (“You don’t like music?”) and the Asian appropriation of Elijah Wood’s character’s house remain vivid after viewing. The characters are likewise given specific and amusing quirks, lending the film a comedic humanity that similar movies don’t have. The villains in particular are menacing and even frightening in their strangeness – they seem a part of a cult, a weird incestuous crime family – but they have heart, too. Like his collaborator Jeremy Saulnier, Blair understands how to draw recognizable characters.
The precise design and character details add to the entertainment value, but also give the film a distinct atmosphere. They fit alongside American Gothic works such as Blood Simple and Flannery O’Connor’s stories. The plot is full of the mundane, such as police bureaucracy and maddening grocery store visits, but through the intense focus of Blair’s vision, the mundane becomes bizarre and even unsettling. We recognize the locations, but at the same time they feel alien and uncomfortable. Like the work of O’Connor, the film alternates between humor and overwhelming darkness, often at the same time. The climax is incredibly intense, even scary, while other scenes are touching or mildly humorous. These shifts in emotion are fascinating and wildly entertaining; they reach Coen Brother-levels of madness.
In the end, the film is a rich, thoroughly entertaining experience – an experience that leaves a small mark on the viewer’s impression of the world. Ruth’s view of society is a universal one, an overwhelming despair at human cruelty that seemingly goes unpunished. While the film’s humor is riotous (the massive Eccles theater was laughing in unison during the Sundance premiere), Ruth’s nihilistic melancholy runs throughout, influencing each scene and interaction. Melanie Lynskey portrays this emotion beautifully – one’s heart aches for and with her. Yet somehow, even after the explosion of violence in the final half, Blair allows the viewer to feel peaceful. He is not a sadistic filmmaker; he might hollow your mind with mayhem, but he’ll fill it again, too. It’s the wild, angry, but hopeful film that many of us need right now.