I’m having a hard time.
This post-election atmosphere equates to a looming storm cloud, one that is leaking blood and piss and shit that cascades over any dreams we had for the immediate future. One where any moment that leads to a flash of excitement is often followed by a sense of dread over whether or not I’ll be able to get health care next year, which is then followed by a sense of guilt, knowing how many will have it much worse. And all of which is then erased by the existential dread of hearing that we’re putting more missiles in South Korea and all these worries could be extinguished in a dust cloud of nuclear war. And all the while the entire world argues about it on social media. This is the constant reality. And I’m having trouble dealing with it.
I was using movies as a dream-like balm for my daily discontent long before these dreadful realities came to be, as many of us do. Back when my biggest worries were whether or not I would be able to pay rent at the end of the month. But suddenly in this heightened atmosphere I must admit that I found a profound solace in Macon Blair’s directorial debut, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, a weirdly intuitive film about living in the age of he who shall not be named. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s on Netflix so you can do so immediately (and please note this article is filled with spoilers about the entire film). The central driving notion at the heart of I Don’t Feel is the frustration that comes with feeling helpless. It’s the helplessness of trying get ahead at work, the helplessness of trying to literally and figuratively fix everyone around you because of a hole you can’t fix in yourself, and the helplessness of “I try to do the right thing, but why does it never work? And why is everyone else the worst?”
Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) works a 9-to-5 as a nurse who doesn’t seem to be thrilled with the futility of her job. She doesn’t seem to live in the nicest neighborhood. She doesn’t even seem to feel like she has a place in the world (Note: the title of the film). But the catalyst of the plot is her home being broken into without forced entry, so the cops seem less than interested in recovering her property; specifically of concern is her laptop and a priceless silverware collection previously owned by Ruth’s late grandmother (who was a war nurse that we can gather Ruth has a deep fondness for i.e. her career choice). So Ruth uses the location app on her phone and tracks her stolen laptop to a nearby address and decides to take matters into her own hands. However, she doesn’t want to go on her own and the only companion she can convince to join her is an eccentric neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood), who she only semi-knows because she recently threw dog shit at him after she caught his dog pooping on her lawn… again.
Unlikely as their pairing is, the two of them are swept up in their own gumption, excitement, and righteousness of trying to correct this wrong. In reality, Ruth’s just trying to exercise her own feelings of inefficacy and Tony wants to play the posturing bad-ass (complete with mace and ninja stars). They begin working their way through recovering her lost items with surprising success, both exhibiting their campy sense of justice. But all of these good intentions and feelings of empowerment come crashing down the moment the wooden chest holding the silverware smacks a shopkeeper in the face. All of the sudden there’s blood, a broken finger, and an old man left for dead. We’re snapped out of the daydream and into the reality of the chaos our actions.
The moment is exemplary of everything Macon Blair is so good at: that sudden transition of amiable dramedy to violent thriller with barely a moment to blink. Our brain sees this as going from the real world to the highly-dramatized movie world, but is it the other way around? What’s the realer real here? Because this isn’t like the cathartic nature of action movie violence where we cheer. It isn’t the nail-biting fretting of gore-tastic horror. It’s a seamless and sudden transition that makes for a different kind of scary altogether. It’s the realization that following your instincts can put you into the most frightening situations. It’s the realization of, “Yeah, I could do this. This could be me.” You just want your silverware back, but then someone is dead. And suddenly you have to come to terms with whether or not you’d be okay with committing murder, because it really feels like you just committed murder.
It brings us right into the undeniable similarities between this film and Green Room, and not just because both involve Macon Blair, but because both so effectively showcase that scary switch from realism to thriller. But there’s also something different about I Don’t Feel At Home. The conflict is less about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and crushing you under the thumb of violence; this film more reveals the horrible consequences of the mundane. Someone cuts you in line. You get home from work and immediately reach for a beer. A dog poops on your lawn and the owner doesn’t clean it up. Where Green Room takes its dire situation and forms a tortuous noose that never lets up, the injustices of this film are slighter, the different ways of engaging them are more explored. In essence, I Don’t Feel At Home explores the spaces in between tension. The constant set of choices we are given and the insanity that can arise when we just can’t let things go. And it’s not afraid to juxtapose those moments where the noose tightens with moments of incredible silliness and levity. But the effect is no less powerful.
Or perhaps I just I felt more connected to this movie because Lynskey is so damn good and because Ruth is so relatable. She hates her job. She doesn’t seem to have many friends. Her place isn’t very nice or clean. She has ants. Tony’s dog is constantly shitting on her lawn. Even her closest friendship is with a married woman whose daughter seems to adore her, but whose husband seems to be annoyed by how needy she is. Nothing feels quite whole. And on the same day a patient dies on her, her house gets broken into and no one gives a shit. It’s all the futility of the mundane. The conversation she has with her friend Angie when she just says “everyone is an asshole” is echoed in the cynical conversations we all have on near weekly basis. It is this general fed-up-ness with the way people treat each other. It is omnipresent.
Near the end of the film, she takes her concerns all the way to the top of the apparent pyramid of crime and gives voice to all her feelings. She says “you can’t do that to people” to which she's met with a “you say that like it means something.” It’s not just that it’s futile to fight someone who doesn’t care, it’s the realization that there is no pyramid. There is no top. There is no one responsible. It’s all just a messy knot of Christmas lights of everyone doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, or just because they feel like they can get away with it - because they usually can. Ruth is challenged in the same scene: “What do you want?” Ruth: “For people to not be assholes?”
But what if you can’t unmake the assholeishness of the world?
It all keeps spiraling out into the most violent of consequences, and Ruth is only saved by the tiniest of gestures and luck. She knows to be grateful for this, but she nonetheless is left to sit contemplating the entirety of her actions. Her friend tells her to be kind to herself, saying “You got all the time in the world,” but Ruth can only respond: “I don’t what that means.” Because the feeling of futility never really goes away. And it doesn’t matter if we try to cling to morality, or try to throttle the world and tell it to act better, or even try to let go. It’s all messy. It’s always going to be messy. Especially as the world not-so-slowly goes to hell. But with the final look between two characters in the film, I realize the only solace I can take away from all this:
I’m having a hard time.
But I don’t feel alone in this.