Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is frustrated by the selfish and inconsiderate actions of other people. From exhaust-belching SUVs, to rude supermarket patrons, to the generally ill-mannered. She is bothered by things that in isolation might seem slight, perhaps even inconsequential, but they slowly congeal, amassing into a huge, morale-sapping void. With no single point of focus at which to direct her anger, the only possible route for Ruth’s frustration is for it to sit and simmer, until such a point as something causes it to boil over.
That boiling point comes when Ruth’s house is robbed. Her laptop and grandmother’s silverware is stolen and the police action on the matter is limited to the creation of a case number and the suggestion Ruth herself is at fault. Even when presented with an avenue for investigation, the law is hamstrung by its own listless investigative process. Ruth is made acutely aware she is the only one who cares.
So begins I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, a dark comedy that won the Grand Jury prize for drama at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, before dropping on Netflix a month later. It combines a good old-fashioned detective story with feelings of modern helplessness, escalating everyday irritation and existential despair. But, you know, it’s also funny.
The robbery is the final straw in Ruth’s disenfranchisement. She is left with no option but to solve the crime herself. In order to do so, she befriends her oddball neighbour Tony (Elijah Wood), who spends his days listening to British heavy metal and obsessing over Japanese martial arts. Tony is a bit of an outsider himself, but not remotely as obnoxious as he self-describes.
Armed only with a GPS tracking device, a plaster cast of a footprint and some ninja stars, they set out to retrieve Ruth’s property. Unfortunately it sets them on a collision course with a trio of violent criminals, including the seedy gang leader Marshall, played by David Yow of noise rock maniacs The Jesus Lizard.
Writer and director Macon Blair (the actor in his directorial debut) skilfully draws the viewer into Ruth’s life, lulling us into thinking we’re watching a Duplass Brothers-style indie drama, before it thunders suddenly down a neo-noir path, containing righteous lawn ornament theft and a lot of casual violence.
Just in case that sounds like I Don’t Feel At Home is a bit miserable, let me assure you there is plenty of gallows humour to be found in the absurd and sudden tonal shift that takes place halfway through the narrative. More broadly comic is Ruth’s daily grind and Tony’s self-importance; Lynskey and Wood share a great chemistry and make for a hugely agreeable detective duo.
Ruth’s earnest wish “for people not to be assholes” is met with scorn and mocking. So there are also vicarious thrills to be had when she turns a resigned defeat into a compelling and grisly adventure. I haven’t quite decided if emerging from lockdown has made these small irritations more significant or not, but if the film-makers ever made a sequel I’m sure they could add anti-maskers, vaccine conspiracy theorists and toilet paper hoarders to Ruth’s list of grievances.
Since it’s Ruth’s alienation that makes her so sympathetic as a character, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore becomes somewhat ironic as a title. Nevertheless, the salient point is that this is a truly outstanding crime thriller and one of the best film offerings on Netflix today.