When actors make the transition from one side of the camera to the other, they often betray the influence of those who have directed them. Clint Eastwood, for one high-profile example, started his filmmaking career with a series of movies that operated a lot like those of Dirty Harry director Don Siegel. A similar creative education, down to shared themes of vigilantism, animates I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, the first feature written and directed by Macon Blair. Blair starred as a lamb trying to make himself into a lion in Jeremy Saulnier’s ruthless revenge drama Blue Ruin, and he also played a significant supporting role in the filmmaker’s follow-up, the somehow even more ruthless Green Room. Not surprisingly, Saulnier’s stylistic fingerprints are all over I Don’t Feel At Home, detectable on everything from the contrast-heavy cinematography to a focus on fringe-dwelling lowlifes to the sudden bursts of grotesque violence. What’s not so easily replicated, however, is Saulnier’s electrifying blend of black comedy and white-knuckle suspense.
It’s not for a lack of trying. Blair is no slouch—he’s certainly picked up some useful tricks from his frequent collaborator, including an understanding of how to employ an unexpected cut for comedic and shock value—and there’s something to be said for any directorial debut that attempts a tonal balancing act this wild. I Don’t Feel At Home starts strong, with a biting deadpan montage that lays out the mundane daily humiliations faced by depressed nursing assistant Ruth (Melanie Lynskey). Ruth is the type of person who quietly re-shelves the items other people drop on the floor at the grocery store, internalizing her resentment and filtering it through a default politeness. But when she returns after a particularly rotten day to find her home burglarized—goodbye laptop, goodbye family-heirloom silver, goodbye sense of security—her growing philosophy that “everyone is an asshole” explodes into a full-blown vendetta. And if the police aren’t going to take the investigation seriously, she’ll take matters into her own hands.
In the more than 20 years that have elapsed since she made her breakthrough as a lovesick teenage murderer in Heavenly Creatures, Lynskey has built an enviable portfolio of distinctive character-actor work and memorable supporting performances. (An unsung favorite: her insecure, overshadowed journalist in Shattered Glass.) I Don’t Feel At Home constructs a movie around her neurotic energy, and there’s a lot of promise in the setup of a perennial doormat pushed to the limits of her patience. But as Ruth wades in over her head, crossing paths with the amoral small-time criminals that pillaged her property, the movie surrounds Lynskey—recognizably human in a role that puts her impeccable comic timing to good use—with a rogues’ gallery of live-action cartoons. This includes a bespectacled Elijah Wood, channeling Dwight Schrute as the oddball, nunchaku-twirling, churchgoing neighbor who bumbles into her crusade—a character that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jared Hess movie. With Blue Ruin, Saulnier scored grim chuckles from the hapless maneuvers of amateur law-breakers. Blair miscalculates, cranking the dumbfuck-pratfall levels to wacky extremes.
Unlikely winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance this year, I Don’t Feel At Home has its laughs, no question. One delirious non sequitur finds Wood’s mouth-breathing sidekick offering up his mad hacking skills, only to reveal a computer literacy somewhere in the Donald Trump range. Another inspired moment pits Ruth’s own impotent frustration against that of the detective very marginally on her case, the pair performing a sublime duet of passive aggression. What’s more, Blair offers a few moments that suggest an innate control of tension, including a great creeping long take—orchestrated by Swiss Army Man cinematographer Larkin Seiple—involving the retrieval of a kitchen knife. But the film’s mix of limb-mangling violence and buffoonish caricatures is an uneasy one; growing both grislier and broader en route to a rote hostage situation, I Don’t Feel At Home begins to resemble nothing so much as a Coen brothers imitation with thinner characters. Still, no one much cared for Saulnier’s debut, Murder Party, back when he was still known primarily as the cinematographer for fellow indie director Matthew Porterfield (I Used To Be Darker). Give Blair time. He may have a Green Room-grade corker in him yet.