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Meryl Streep may opine that mixed martial arts aren’t arts at all, but then she hadn’t yet seen what actor-turned-director Macon Blair and Elijah Wood do with the latter’s martial-arts-obsessed sidekick character in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. A delicious combination of idiosyncratic character drama and increasingly violent and violently absurd comedy, this Netflix title opened the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance this year and is an assured debut for Blair, the star of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and Green Room. It also offers New Zealand actress Melanie Lynskey (Heavily Creatures, Happy Christmas) one of her juiciest roles to date as the lead character, a nursing assistant who has lost all faith in humanity and then finds herself chasing after some petty criminals who stole her laptop and heirloom silverware. This good-looking and confidently assembled feature will premiere Feb. 24 on the streaming service.
Lynskey is Ruth, a woman whose life is as unassuming as her modest home and work. But something snaps when she returns from her work as a caregiver one evening and finds that someone burgled her house and took off with her computer and grandma’s silverware. She feels violated, as she inappropriately tells the shocked daughter of a friend, and finally decides to go after the thieves herself when an app on her phone gives her the location of her laptop and the ineffective police refuse to help her.
In the early going, the camerawork and the score, the latter by the director’s siblings, Brooke and Will Blair, play up the unease and even the menace that Ruth feels after the burglary, though already there’s room for some moments of off-color humor as well, notably involving a foul-mouthed lady’s last words at Ruth’s workplace.
To not be completely alone on her crazy quest to get back her belongings and get even with a world she doesn’t understand anymore, Ruth recruits the unlikeliest of assistants: Tony (Wood), a weirdo neighbor who looks like the beanpole version of John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski and who has the nasty habit of letting his dog Kevin shit in Ruth’s yard. To perhaps compensate for his wiry frame, Tony has taken a shine to incongruous things, including the aforementioned martial arts and heavy metal music, both sources of some of the film’s occasionally delightfully eccentric humor.
Ruth has no experience as a detective or a cop and neither does she really have a plan beyond getting her stuff back from the location indicated on her phone. And Tony doesn’t seem to be of much help in this area, though he at least has the good grace to turn up at the right time and place more than a few times. The film, also written by Blair, manages an impressive balancing act in term of its tricky, quicksilver tone, which constantly oscillates between foreboding, menacing, hilarity and absurdity without ever feeling incongruous. On a purely narrative level, however, the introduction of some of the villains feels somewhat awkward, as the film has to abandon its point-of-view close to Ruth to show what kind of people they are before they are set onto a collision course with Ruth and Tony, which doesn’t quite feel organic.
Lynskey impresses as a simple gal who’s fed up with the world she lives in — note the title — and whose only drive is her instinct to set things right, while Wood adds another memorable oddball creation to his growing gallery of superb supporting turns. All of the crooks — because of course it’s not just one guy, so Blair has more than one potentially disposable body available for his increasingly blood-soaked antics — are played to the hilt by the terrific supporting cast, but it’s Christine Woods who steals the show as the stepmother of one of them. She’s a perfectly coiffed woman who is either completely gullible or hilariously nonplussed by Ruth and Tony arriving on her doorstep and posing as cops with a badge lifted from a bag of cereals. Her one-sentence explanation for her actions gets one of the film’s biggest laughs.
Blair’s portrayal of the world of drug addicts, lowlifes and the simple working-class folk that get mixed up in the aftermath of their petty crimes, is unerring and feels closely related to Saulnier’s universe. But the humor, which becomes increasingly absurd and violent as the film snowballs into something more outrageous, is distinctly his own, scoring laughs with people getting whacked, shot and have various limbs go through what look like very painful transformations. Though this shift prevents the film from becoming truly touching in the character department, few people are likely to care as the laughs and shocking moments keep coming. Again, what impresses is the smoothness of the tonal shifts, combining a menacing crime story with absurdist humor.
As a Netflix Original, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore wasn’t necessarily made with theatrical exhibition in mind, but this doesn’t seem to have impacted the film’s craft credits, which are superb. Director of photography Larkin Seiple (Swiss Army Man) uses a lot of contre-jour and low-sun shots that give the frequently unsavory proceedings a majestic, deceivingly peaceful glow, while the film’s versatile score is key in helping to calibrate all of the story’s tricky transitions in mood and atmosphere. The soundscape, too, is a major plus in ensuring every punch and whack lands with the appropriate force.
Finally, Blair himself has a fun cameo early on as a bar patron who ruins the plot of a fantasy novel that Ruth has started reading. The scene almost plays like a warning: This movie will be much better if you don’t know what’s going to happen going in.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Netflix, XYZ, Filmscience
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood, David Yow, Jane Levy, Devon Graye, Christine Woods, Robert Longstreet, Lee Eddy, Gary Anthony Williams
Writer-director: Macon Blair
Producers: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savio, Anish Savjani, Mette-Marie Kongsved
Executive producers: Nick Spicer, Lee Eddy, Matt Levin, Ian Bricke
Director of photography: Larkin Seiple
Production designer: Tyler B. Robinson
Costume designer: Julie Carnahan
Editor: Tom Vengris
Music: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Casting: Mark Bennett
Not rated, 96 minutes
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