The governing philosophy of writer-director Macon Blair's darkly funny suburban noir is nicely summed up by its melancholy mouthful of a title: "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore." A more succinct version of this idea — and here I'm paraphrasing the movie's put-upon heroine, Ruth Kimke (Melanie Lynskey), who uses stronger language than can be repeated here — might be "Everyone is a jerk."
This is hardly a new concept. Some of the cinema's most persistent and rigorous misanthropes, Lars von Trier and Todd Solondz among them, have devoted brilliant careers to proving it beyond a shadow of a doubt. But while Blair may empathize with Ruth's existential despair, he doesn't entirely share it. What's delightful about "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore," a recent Sundance Film Festival hit that bypassed theaters en route to a Netflix queue near you, is how consistently the film challenges our worst assumptions about humanity even as it confirms them.
Exhibit A for the defense might be Tony (a hilarious Elijah Wood), the rattail-sporting, nunchaku-wielding neighbor who, despite his annoying habit of leaving his dog's feces on Ruth's lawn, turns out to be the very opposite of a jerk. Exhibit B could be Meredith (Christine Woods), a bored-stiff housewife who, when Ruth and Tony drop by on a patently phony pretext, warmly invites them into her sprawling mansion for a delicious, machine-brewed cappuccino.
But the most compelling evidence here might be Ruth herself, a mild-mannered nursing assistant whom Lynskey endows with the full force of her nervous, off-center charm. As in the 2012 indie comedy "Hello I Must Be Going," perhaps her most completely realized starring vehicle before this one, Lynskey is a figure of forlorn grace, giving endearing form to a woman for whom life has become an endless series of dissatisfactions — death by a thousand slights.
We first meet Ruth weathering a series of such indignities — getting stuck behind a greedy shopper in the grocery-store express line, or an exhaust-belching pickup truck on the road — which leave her increasingly disillusioned with the universe and its seemingly limitless capacity for unthinking cruelty. And that's before she returns home that afternoon to find that someone has broken in, ransacked the place and stolen her laptop, her prescription medication and her grandmother's silverware.
It's a crime that elicits more than mere annoyance; she feels violated to the core. The police are no help — their apparent indifference to her case merely adds insult to injury — and so Ruth decides to strike out on her own, find out who robbed her and get her stuff back. She isn't vindictive enough to want revenge, per se; she's the kind of person who, confronted with the object of her fury, would demand an apology, or at least an explanation, rather than trying to exact payment in kind.
The people she's going up against have no such scruples. Joining forces with Tom, who quickly becomes her unfailingly loyal confidant, Ruth casts herself as Nancy Drew in a detective story that swerves without warning into a blood-spattered nightmare, hastened along by a snarling bully (Robert Longstreet) and a trio of armed-and-dangerous thugs (Devon Graye, David Yow and Jane Levy).
The one really responsible for terrorizing Ruth, of course, is Blair himself, who wittily casts himself in an early scene as a bar patron who cluelessly spoils the fantasy novel Ruth's reading: It's as if the writer-director were materializing in the flesh to warn her of the horrors in store. Blair, an actor making his filmmaking debut, is best known for starring in Jeremy Saulnier's ferocious 2013 revenge thriller "Blue Ruin," in which he plays a kind of Southern male counterpart to Ruth — a guy who goes looking for trouble and finds more than his fair share.
The inexorable grisliness of "Blue Ruin" and Saulnier's 2015 thriller, "Green Room" — which, like this movie, was shot in Oregon — has clearly rubbed off on Blair. He seems entirely at ease with the visual grammar of suspense; he knows how to build tension within the frame, and how to release that tension in bursts of brutal, cover-your-eyes mayhem. And he smoothly handles the tricky tonal shift into Grand Guignol territory with the help of an editing scheme that condenses throwaway gags and telling character details into sharp, rapid-fire montages.
But in the end, it is the wit, warmth and coherence of Lynskey's performance that lends this violent comic scherzo both its cruelly demented narrative logic and its curiously cheery aftertaste. And also, too, its rooting interest — its ability to take familiar material and mine from it the kind of bracingly pulpy narrative pleasures that are best appreciated in the company of a crowd.
I say this having first seen "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" less than a month ago at Sundance, where it won the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition. Admittedly, the excitement of seeing Blair's movie with about 1,200 other eagerly attentive festival-goers would be tough to replicate even in the grandest commercial venue, which doesn't make it any less of a shame that this Netflix original production — an audience picture through and through — isn't even getting the chance.
The release strategy behind Blair's film offers only a taste of what's to come: On Tuesday it was reported that Netflix, in a major coup, had acquired worldwide rights to Martin Scorsese's upcoming gangster picture, "The Irishman," which will start streaming the same day it premieres in theaters in 2019. A brave new world of cinema distribution clearly awaits us, and I'd be lying if I said I felt entirely at home in it myself.
'I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore'
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes