2020 has been a long nightmare of a year, one that has constantly defied the rules of time and space in terms of how much bad stuff can happen in such a short amount of time. The cascade of awfulness never seems to end. Amid all this chaos, the responsibilities of adulthood – work, chores, bills – feel insurmountable, and the world around us feels unrecognizable. One of the only things getting me through it is cinema, and the movie I keep returning to for its insightful portrait of this pervasive malaise and our simmering resentment in response to it is Macon Blair’s directorial debut, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.
Blair has long been known for his collaborations with childhood friend-turned-creative partner Jeremy Saulnier. He played a supporting role in Saulnier’s directorial debut, the horror comedy Murder Party. Blair then starred in (and produced) Saulnier’s Blue Ruin as a man avenging his parents’ murders and being drawn into an interfamilial war, and next appeared as a secondary villain in Saulnier’s follow-up, the brutal neo-Nazi horror Green Room. Its success helped pave the way for the duo’s next collaboration, Hold the Dark; Saulnier directed and Blair wrote the screenplay for an adaptation of William Giraldi’s unsettling novel about cosmic evil in an Alaskan village. Any familiarity with Saulnier and Blair’s films provides a clue into their shared sensibilities and common interests: people living in the margins of society, pushing back against increasingly brutal circumstances to survive.
Blair picks up that same thread in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a film that steps slightly back from the grandiosity of Blue Ruin, the griminess of Green Room, and the disquiet of Hold the Dark to focus more on the everyday indignities that hint at society-wide selfishness. (Blair took the film’s title from a Woody Guthrie song about the anger of Dust Bowl refugees after the Great Depression.) Set in Austin, Texas, it follows nursing assistant Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) during a particularly nightmarish few days. The opening scene, in which Ruth’s plaintive stargazing is interrupted by the rowdiness of her neighbors, briskly communicates her frustration with other people’s self-regard. The following morning while she drives to work, the colossal truck in front of her blasts out diesel exhaust. The patient she’s caring for dies with a racist diatribe as her final words. Ruth is cut off in the parking lot of a grocery store by a car that starts backing out without checking first; in the store itself, a man knocks items off the shelves as he walks by and doesn’t stop to pick them up; someone jumps in front of her on the way to checkout. Even at a bar, where Ruth thinks she’s connected with a man about a series of fantasy novels she’s reading, the moment curdles: the guy (Blair in a cameo) ruins the book’s ending, and then just walks away.
There’s a snappy rhythm to this opening – complemented by a slapstick-style score from Macon’s brothers, composers Brooke and Will Blair – that makes plain the regularity of these indiscretions. Perfectly cast is Lynskey, a master of communicating, through her beleaguered body language and aghast facial expressions, how each transgression weighs on Ruth more heavily than the last. When she returns home to find her laptop, medications (including, tellingly, an antidepressant), and grandmother’s silver gone, and with the police basically shrugging their shoulders at this kind of low-level burglary, Ruth reaches a breaking point. The crime serves as a moment of radicalization – not just for capturing the revulsion Ruth feels at how people treat each other, but also for inspiring her to do something about it. The next day, when Ruth asks around her neighborhood to see if anyone saw anything suspicious, the only person offering to help is the eccentric Tony (Elijah Wood), who, admittedly, seems sort of weird. His rat-tail hairdo, aviator glasses, leather bomber jacket, and array of Japanese weapons are a strange sight in their sleepy Texas neighborhood, but of everyone Ruth talks to, he’s the only one who cares. “You did not bother me. This affects all of us,” Tony insists, and his affirmation might be the most emboldening thing that has happened to Ruth in a long time.
How Ruth then steadily, and quite enthusiastically, throws herself into vigilantism gives I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore an undeniably thrilling satisfaction because of how clearly Blair sketches a world in which it seems like everyone, all the time, seems to be thinking only of themselves. When Ruth and Tony decide to act against that omnipresent egoism, they tumble into a criminal scheme that puts their lives in danger, and that spirals into something far deadlier than a stolen family heirloom. But Blair is a master of tone, striking a perfect balance in sympathizing with Ruth and Tony’s irritation and celebrating their growing friendship (their revelry during a slow-motion dance party; how Ruth rests her head on Tony’s shoulder while they watch a hazy sunset) while still underscoring that there is perhaps a limit to what two people can do against, say, a trio of addicts willing to resort to murder for some quick cash. Nevertheless, the film makes clear that Ruth and Tony ultimately seizing back some of the control that has been increasingly stripped from them as they move through adulthood is a good thing, and in fact might be the only way to stay sane in a seemingly uncaring world.
Especially in this current cultural moment, as we feel increasingly disconnected from those around us and empathy seems in short supply, what I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore captures about how the myriad exasperations of daily life can add up to something more soul-decaying resonates. But the solution, Blair argues, is realizing that we’re all we’ve got, and acting accordingly. When someone asks Ruth what she wants, and she responds “For people not to be assholes” – that outrage has rarely felt more relevant.