Friday, June 16, 2017
I DON'T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE
I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore is the sort of movie the Coen brothers used to make, back in the heyday of Blood Simple and Fargo and The Big Lebowski, back when the Coens were trying to take moviegoers by the neck and slam them into a wall, making them pay attention, keeping them dazzled with plot twists and odd characters, to such a point that you didn't dare take a bathroom break. It's been a while since the Coens have made one of those - nowadays the Coens are like grizzled old uncles telling the same jokes they'd told years ago, hoping they're still funny. Lucky for us, Macon Blair's new movie is almost in the Coen's tradition, not quite as good as the brothers at their best, but damned close. Blair directs his film like he's a pickpocket moving through a crowded dance floor, bobbing and weaving, getting in close, doing his business, and then ducking out in a direction you wouldn't have anticipated. Then he moves back in, hitting us again with a striking image or weird music or a bit of violence. You wait for a misstep; it doesn't happen.
Melanie Lynskey plays Ruth, a nursing assistant whose home was robbed. When the police show little interest, she enlists the help of her neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood). He's one of those nerdy loners who reads about weapons and martial arts and imagines himself as a soldier of fortune type, even though he's probably never been in a fight. Ruth and Tony manage to retrieve her stolen laptop, which is quite an achievement, but when the rest of her missing items lead them to a ring of dangerous criminals, they find that their adventure is getting them into some deep, murky waters. "I just want people to stop being assholes," Ruth says. Who can argue with that? Tony, though his background includes working at Starbucks and reading a lot of sword and sorcery novels, is a good sidekick for Ruth. We suspect he'd like to get closer to her, if only because she's given him the chance to live out his vigilante fantasies. Who else but Ruth would encourage this disenfranchised dude to use his nunchucks?
Of course, it's a tale we've seen before, that of the goodhearted soul who wants to combat evildoers, but finds it to be a rather nasty business. How close do you get to evil without becoming evil yourself? But Blair, working from his own screenplay, keeps finding ways to jar us. Sometimes it's with unexpected brutality - this is a movie full of broken bones, snake bites, and people being run down by trucks - but on top of that is the way people respond to the violence. When Ruth, for instance, sees someone get their hand blown off, she can't stop vomiting. Bullets are flying everywhere, but Ruth is spared only because she's bent over puking her guts up. Tony, too, seems surprised at how his stash of medieval weapons can actually actually come in handy. The bad guys, too, are just weird enough to keep you unsure of their next step. It's almost a relief when they turn out to be just as bad as they appear to be.
Lynskey first came to our attention in Peter Jackson's Academy Award nominated crime drama Heavenly Creatures opposite Kate Winslet. She's been a dependable performer ever since, and is quite moving here as the well-meaning Ruth. Wood, exceptional as Tony, continues his good luck streak in offbeat projects. Blair made his directing debut here - he's acted in quite a few movies, and served as a producer on a couple of grim features (Blue Ruin, Green Room) - and was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for a dramatic feature at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Granted, that means something different than it did 10 or 20 years ago, but in an era where most smaller budgeted movies by novice directors usually feel like insipid film school exercises, this one reaches for the throat and isn't afraid to squeeze. Along with cinematographer Larkin Seiple, Blair gives the Portland Oregon backdrop a swampy, gravelly feel, while the music selection includes slashes of country, gospel, and even a bit of "Surrender" by Suicide. Watching I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore is akin to listening to some feisty young guitarist peel out on his Fender, playing licks that may sound familiar, but leaving you satisfied nonetheless. It's nice to know someone out there is still trying.