“My house got robbed.”
The poster above and the photo below on the left suggest the movie is one thing, but that “one thing” splits available space with the type of movie that produces a photo like the one on the right.
Ruth (indie darling, doe-eyed Melanie Lynskey) loses some valuables when someone robs her house. She’d already been having a tough day. People cut her off in line at the grocery story, and afterwards she entered into that never ending dance between a driver and a pedestrian (“who goes first?”). When Tony (Elijah Wood) lets his dog Kevin shit on her lawn without a second glance, it’s the last straw — except the situation deflates as quickly as it arises. She goes to confront him. He mumbles “sorry” or “fine” or “okay”. She has no choice but to accept this and go back inside. That night, a little of writer-director Macon Blair’s tendency to incorporate realistic problem solving comes for the first time. One of Ruth’s stolen items is a laptop. Ruth remembers there are apps that locate your laptop’s whereabouts. Quickly she learns her laptop is only a fifteen minute drive away, and after a pained conversation with 9-1-1 (“I can see my stolen laptop!” “…Then it isn’t stolen, ma’am.”) that is less funny than it is a contrived way to move the plot forward, she realizes she’s on her own. But she’s not. She decides to recruit Tony, with the shitting dog Kevin.
The moment Tony learns Ruth got her stuff stolen, he’s furious. He’s furious in a way that’s creepy, scary, and a little endearing. Elijah Wood somehow manages to bring together his small body size, emotive eyes, and high voice to create a real moment with a truly original character. This guy Tony might be pretty fucked up, and Ruth might have made a big mistake involving him.
And this is where I Don’t Feel At Home… hints at the great movie it could’ve been. Once they get inside the thief’s house, our expectations are set. Tony may have the capacity to be dangerous, but these people are thugs, and who really is Ruth? Then Tony gets out his nun-chucks and breaks open a thug’s face. At the same time Ruth uses the find-your-laptop app on her phone and its confirmative dinging acts like a second weapon. The thugs turn sheepish. They even give her her charger back.
For the most part, the movie rolls along as easily as the country songs that score it. The moment I describe above is one of three or four inspired surprises in an otherwise completely fine movie.
The problem is in the premise, which is a shame because that means it plagues the entire movie. The premise is a sitcom premise that eventually unravels into something akin to a meandering Coen Brothers plot. A soft-spoken, shy nurse decides today’s the day she takes action, and that means forming what feels like a makeshift neighbourhood watch with the suburban street’s outcast (for colour) to get some justice. Melanie Lynskey’s aforementioned doe eyes and soothing voice make the first act incredibly convincing but because they’re a locked part of her person (Lynskey’s own person) she’s unable to pull off the harder stuff, the kind of violence that draws blood, not pouting. Elijah Wood, too, shows oddball promise — great promise — early on in the film and then for whatever reason (Blair’s choice, Wood’s choice?) Tony loses his unpredictability and instead joins a rapidly growing list of Elijah Wood characters that all seem faintly annoyed at something and yet are too unimportant to do something about it. The irony is Macon Blair, also an actor, would’ve been the better casting choice for either of the roles (had Ruth become “Red”, for example). In Blue Ruin he begins as a Ruth type character and quickly grows into more of a vengeful, active Travis Bickle. Despite the fact that at default he looks like a melancholy French Bulldog, he can turn that melancholy into something moving and unsettling.
Most of this review comes from unfulfilled expectations and, so, disappointment. The cinematography is refreshing: the humid, turgid south offsets the elegant shot composition. Despite the shortcomings in the premise, the writing is often clever, and pairs little moments of humour with gore nicely.
And I like everyone involved. I wish them all the best. As I said, the story contains a few surprises, all of which aren’t just good, they’re great, and had me saying “oh god!” out loud. Some surprises are purely visual, others become plot turns, and so on. How the story ends — even just the way it develops after the first act — is unpredictable, which is great, but the way the characters (based on the actors that play them) will handle trouble is predictable, and that’s a shame.
Note: The articles and reviews (like AV Club’s, for example) saying this story about a woman who cracks under the weight of a society made up of assholes is somehow a response to Trump seems like a stretch. The other reviews that say this is a movie set on redefining gender roles also seems like a stretch, but maybe I just didn’t notice this redefinition because it seems equally believable that at present a woman could lead a vengeful story as easily as a man. There’s nothing groundbreaking in this movie with regards to gender or politics, but if people think there is that could explain its big win at Sundance.