Director and writer Macon Blair presents us with the story of a woman who experiences a personal sea of change when criminals push her over the edge, but what’s notable in Blair’s screenplay is the way in which the female protagonist asserts herself, not willing to be a passive victim of life’s innumerable bullies anymore. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore gives our lead character moral purpose without infallible, superhuman strength and bestows her with an agency that’s grounded in reality.
Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) confines herself to a life of service and solitude that wouldn’t be so terrible except for the awful people she brushes up against on a daily basis. Their rude, angry, and selfish behavior chips away at her patience and well-being. She sighs, letting them continue their greedy ways so that she doesn’t have to interact much with them, but a burglary of her home disturbs her sense of self, soon sending Ruth into an existential tailspin. Feeling violated, and that she can’t let bad people get away with screwing others over anymore, she bristles over the containment of her rage. After trying all the traditional outlets (police, friends, alcohol), she turns to her peculiar neighbor, Tony (Elijah Wood), for backup as she sets out to track down the culprits. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore whips up tangible jeopardy while positively building up its female protagonist. She doesn’t have many resources or much physical prowess, but she’s as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
The film is a bit bumbling, though, not as tight as it should be, and loses momentum when we follow the criminals without Ruth. Their presence is most effective when shrouded in mystery, and revealing both their connections and background renders them more mundane. An introduction to their nomadic lives in the woods is disconcerting because of the darkness that surrounds their habits, but Blair only half-humanizes them by outlining their history; their weird actions and turns of phrase act to confuse the meaning of the portrayals presented. It would have benefited the plot to stick to one version of these rogues, but that being said, there’s some great character work by the various seedy scumbags that Ruth tracks down. Blair has the same flair for the abrupt and grotesque violence that his frequent collaborator, director Jeremy Saulnier, has become known for in Blue Ruin, Murder Party and Green Room (all of which Blair acted in), but he lingers a bit too long on the bloody destruction. This is a grimy and unforgiving world that the characters dwell in, and the camera unfortunately focuses in on what’s immediately apparent far past the provocative initial shock.
Proactive and striking back for the little people who just want to live in peace without intrusion, Ruth is a character awakening from complacency, always seeming to be the smartest person in any given room. The most appealing aspect of I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, however, is that Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures, Hello I Must Be Going) is given a passionate part that affords a female protagonist growth through action and contemplation, with the bonus that it isn’t co-opted by drifting into romance. There is an affinity between Ruth and Tony, but it doesn’t get in the way of her dangerous mission, or make her realize that true love has been the answer to her problems all along. Wood is an agreeable counterpart to Lynskey, a quiet and practical sidekick who is only there to support her plans. This gender role reversal is satisfying, and balances out the over-the-top martial arts-obsessed loner aspect of Wood’s oddball personality. Ruth’s connection to him doesn’t have to be fully-fleshed out for her story to feel complete; she is a woman not content to know her place in society and willingly confronts elements which oppress her.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is an introspective take on bullies getting a modicum of comeuppance that thankfully acknowledges the limitations of the protagonist’s quest. It’s equal parts pleasing and distressing, without being a definitive triumph.