You’d have to go all the way back to “Heavenly Creatures” to find a role that understands what actress Melanie Lynskey brings to the table as clearly as does Macon Blair’s “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.” And yet, the fact that it’s taken 20-odd years — this despite lead roles in such even-keel melodramas as “Hello I Must Be Going” and “Happy Christmas” along the way — for someone else to tap her good-girl-pushed-too-far potential is cause for celebration among the actress’s fans, who’ll have the chance to discover this odd-bird Netflix original on demand soon enough, as the company plans to release it via its online platform on Feb. 24.
This is the sort of fresh indie voice people come to Sundance to discover, and it’s an apt choice to open the 2017 festival, capturing a sort of “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” frustration boiling over throughout the country these days. While not as operatically over-directed as early Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Guy Ritchie movies, Blair’s compulsively suspenseful directorial debut takes audiences on a similarly unpredictable ride — one sparked by something as simple as a routine break-in.
After leaving the back door to her house unlocked, Ruth Kimke (Lynskey) comes home from an especially depressing day as a nurse’s assistant (in an early glimpse of the dark humor to come, a particularly bitter patient passes away while Ruth is in the room) to find her laptop stolen and her grandmother’s heirloom silver collection missing. The cops can scarcely be bothered to investigate, and to be honest, Ruth can get by without the missing items; it’s the thought of having her private space invaded — the sheer violation of it — that really gets her goat.
Blair, who is himself an actor (popping up in a cameo to spoil the novel she’s reading and dampen her day a bit more), keenly leads with a short montage of everyday moments that tell us exactly who Ruth is: She’s the considerate shopper who picks up after others and lets them go first at the checkout, even when they have far more groceries. She drives a classic Camaro (hardly the world’s most fuel-efficient car), but resents the jerks who rig their gas-guzzling trucks with diesel exhaust pipes. And she really hates it when neighbors let their dogs poop on her lawn.
Ticked off by the robbery, Ruth finds herself at the breaking point, somewhere between Michael Douglas’ spontaneous rupture from civilized society in “Falling Down” and Keanu Reeves, right after he buries his dog in “John Wick.” So when the next inconsiderate neighbor fails to pick up after his pet, she scoops up the offending excrement and hurls it at him — which turns out to be a rather memorable way to make a new acquaintance, for Tony (as this curious Elijah Wood character, with his Anakin Skywalker-worthy rattail and penchant for praying in moments of stress, is called) turns out to be the best ally Ruth could hope for in recovering her possessions.
Using a GPS-tracking app, she pinpoints the location of her stolen laptop and, enlisting Tony, the two head over to collect what’s hers. Needless to say, going in without a clear plan, things quickly spiral out of control. Though this bizarre film (is it a thriller, or is it one of the strangest romances a lonely woman could ask for?) features some of the goriest confrontations most audiences will see this year, Blair hasn’t crafted a traditional action movie per se. And while there’s a vague vigilante dimension to Ruth’s actions, all she really wants is “for people to not be assholes.”
Tony, bless his heart, is going to need more than a Chinese throwing star to back her up with the creeps they’re up against —a veritable rogue’s gallery of junkies, crooks, and white-collar criminals that gives every one of the supporting players scenery to chew. Within this all-around colorful ensemble, Christine Woods is a standout as the thief’s stepmom, a bored trophy wife whose Southern hospitality extends even to police impersonators (the movie goes wildly crooked, though not at all in a bad way, after Ruth deputizes herself with a tin badge from a cereal box).
Blair, who was recently seen in such brutal, supercharged genre entries as “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” arrives on the directing scene with formidable control over both the pace and unnerving tone of his work, accentuated by pitch-perfect sound design and a heavy synthesizer score created by his younger siblings, Will and Brooke Blair. Operating somewhat in a Coen brothers vein, the helmer keeps things vacillating in the uneasy space between slow-burn tension and absurdist humor (“Have you ever eaten cat meat?” one goon asks at a climactic moment when audiences might reasonably expect him to deliver a far more menacing line), while giving the film an eccentric spin all his own. If “No Country for Old Men” depicted a nihilistic sheriff’s slow-dawning realization that society as he knew it has lost all sense of reason, then “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” is a young woman’s equivalent existential crisis.
All her life, Ruth has been taught to be polite, and now these thugs have gone and pushed her too far. She’s intelligent enough to locate the stolen goods, and even to identify the culprit (using a plaster cast of a footprint left in mud where he jumped the fence), but not necessarily to know what to do next. She’s the kind of person who believes that rule-breakers deserve “a stern talking to,” which is a good way to get her fingers broken — or worse. It’s the perfect role for Lynskey, who’s wise enough to underplay her character, which allows audiences to pour their own fears and frustrations into everything Ruth represents. And what emerges is a stalwart actress’s best work yet, delivered by an exciting new director to watch.