“You asked for help. I asked for help. It’s how things get done.”
The 2013 thriller Blue Ruin announced the arrival of two new major talents. More prominently was writer/director Jeremy Saulnier, who would go on to up his own ante with the guttural Green Room. But much attention was shuffled onto Ruin’s star, Macon Blair. His performance was a perfect blend of hollow and electrically alive, portraying a man dragged to life’s edge with only one path forward in his mind: revenge. Even though Blair has worked on projects without Saulnier, their fates feel intertwined; before Ruin was even a notion of a film, the two had been pals since youth. With I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Blair takes over completely, both penning the script and directing the project. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that he sorely lacks his friend’s control of tone and balance of ideas.
Things begin rather plainly, though only to contrast with the mayhem to ensue. We see Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) go through the motions of an unsatisfactory life. She faces racist old people and reminders of mortality in her job as a nurses’ assistant. Some neighbor refuses to heed her sign and continues to allow their dog to defecate in her yard. Some asshole in a bar spoils the fantasy novel she’s ready (the jerk played, amusingly, by Blair himself). Then things turn from dour to troubling when she returns home in the midst of a robbery; not much is stolen but as she repeats, “it’s the violation, man”.
Ruth spins out into an existential crisis, and lets out a diatribe about how little all of this matters and how everyone’s a jerk and how death is coming anyway, so who cares? This is familiar terrain for the indie film protagonist, though Lynskey sells it well, as she’s wont to do. Between this and her segment of XX, she’s had plenty of recent experience running through unfamiliar and often messy tones. It was already known that she’s a great actress, but sometimes that truth becomes most evident when appearing in shakier work. Even Lynskey can’t completely hold onto the jarring shifts that ensue from this crisis, but that’s a large ask of anyone.
Anyone familiar with Blair’s predilections will be unsurprised by the general turn I Don’t Feel takes. When Ruth locates her laptop, and the police are unresponsive and uncaring, she enlists an oddball neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood) to get the job done themselves. From there, they fall into a chain of thieves and odd characters in pursuit of not just Ruth’s items but the man who took them and disrupted her life. The manner in which all of this goes down is largely unsatisfying, with the script never quite stumbling onto a structure that works. Characters are introduced at random, sometimes too early to matter and sometimes too late for us to invest. And somehow the film is both overlong and short on actual incident, with Ruth & Tony’s quest arriving at pivotal points far too quickly to have an impact. We never quite get a feel for the actual struggle of their journey.
That winds up cutting down on the impact of the grand finale, which comes across as a bit perfunctory in its devolution into gore and mania. Blair’s script skips ahead to the end of a chess game without properly laying out the pieces beforehand. He introduces a criminal tribe, but only briefly. He spends even less time fleshing out a wealthy family with ties to the thieves. At times it seems like this film, via Ruth, has wandered into a different crime thriller, which is ostensibly the point. But the choices on display are indecisive; either give the audience nothing of the crime family to orient us completely with Ruth, or develop them to the point that they actually matter. Blair certainly deserves credit for taking on such an ambitious idea for his directorial debut. But that doesn’t make the climax feel any less disconnected from the emotional journey of Ruth, which starts and stops with frustrating inconsistency.
Part of the reason for Ruth’s underdevelopment is the aforementioned plot mechanics which are never quite sure how invested they are in her story. Even more troubling, though, is the shifting tone Blair employs with a dismal success rate. One thing that may not have been clear so far is that I Don’t Feel is a comedy as much as it is a thriller (and it’s not much of either). Tony is a purely comic character, though the film flails to throw in a more human side late in the movie. Jokes are often generated by disconnect between, well, it’s hard to say. Blair makes the painful mistake of never clearly showing how this world functions. That makes it difficult to know if the police officer doing a shit job of helping Ruth is a joke, a tragedy, a societal comment or some combination of the three. It can be difficult to tell when laughter is the aim because the film seems to take everything too seriously while investing in nothing at all. It’s the story of a burgeoning nihilist that embraces that worldview too a bit too strongly. The humor is groaning and the thrills are largely absent, so to quote that existential refrain: what’s the point?