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Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the Netflix movieI Don’t Feel at Home In This World Anymore.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.
Ruth (Melanie Lynsey), a nursing assistant in an unnamed town somewhere in America, is at a crisis. It's not just that other people suck, as evidenced by the many little things she experiences during her day that prove how selfish, thoughtless, and nasty humans are. It's how all those little things add up to one big thing, a black hole of Life that only leads to the other black hole of Death.
When someone breaks into her house and steals her sainted grandmother's silverware, an act the authorities respond to with almost complete apathy, Ruth decides that she's had enough. She takes matters into her own hands with the assistance of Tony (Elijah Wood), a loner neighbor with whom she's just made peace over dog poop. Together, they aim to find the people who have violated the sanctity of Ruth's property and then...well, they'll cross that bridge when they get to it. But at the end of that bridge are some nasty hombres led by a guy named Marshall (David Yow, who is also the lead singer for legendary noise rock band The Jesus Lizard).
The mood of this movie is what I find most compelling. Written and directed by Macon Blair, I'm Not At Home In This World Anymore feels to me like a uniquely American movie that's a reflection of life in Trump's America. The movie's title is a sentiment that I've been hearing a lot lately. In its neo-noirish way, the movie presents themes of isolation, class divides, and the kind of existential hopelessness that former President Jimmy Carter talked about decades ago in his famous 1979 Malaise Speech. Ruth lives in a world without common purpose, where everyone is free to grab what they can, while being as inconsiderate to each other as they please. Meanwhile, good people (like Ruth's neighbor Angie, played by Lee Eddy) hunker down, smoke weed, and give what comfort and advice they can.
I enjoyed Lynskey's and Wood's performances as two people who manage to find each other in a nasty world. I also liked the humor and construction of the story, whose violence brought to mind movies such as Kick Ass, as well as Quentin Tarantino's work. It felt right in keeping with the spirit of America, which as we all know can be a rather brutal place. What did you think of the level of violence, Kevin? Do you think it was handled appropriately? And what about the movie in general -- did it work for you as comedy, action caper, comment on society, or none of the above?
[Struggling to find something good to say about this movie...]
Hmm. Lynskey's performance was solid here in exuding the understandable desperation of a highly-aggrieved everywoman. You don't often see women like her (read: non-bombshells) in these kinds of roles, and so casting Lynskey was a refreshing positive. And now for the bad news, from my vantage point: everything else.
I was continually befuddled as to what this movie wanted to be. Every time the narrative slowly roped me back into the serious, sleuthing side of the adventure, the film sabotaged itself by reaching for the Farce lever, with Elijah Wood's Tony as the most egregious offender. Since I've seen Wood display serious acting chops in the past, I can only assume that he was instructed by Blair to chew up the scenery at every opportunity? This might be fine in and of itself (though that tone ain't my thing), but then how are we supposedly to feel real sympathy for Lynskey's Ruth when her sidekick is continually mugging for the camera?
The kicker was the s-t-r-e-t-c-h it took to transform Ruth -- a mild-mannered, 40-year-old nursing assistant, remember -- into an ass-kicking vigilante. This isn't the story of a Vietnam vet who snapped after losing a buddy at the Hanoi Hilton; Ruth was an ordinary woman who was the victim of a routine burglary. That's it. And now she's going to risk life and limb when the detective assigned to her case (Gary Anthony Williams' Bendix) seems unwilling/unable to investigate? And on that note, the disinterest of the police, even when presented with ironclad evidence, was another huge Headscratcher. It made zero sense, except as a plot device to propel Ruth into a world of Extreme Mayhem.
As for the vibe of "Trump's America," I'm going to need some more exposition here, since I feel pretty much the same in Trump's America as I did in Obama's/Bush's/Clinton's Americas. I'm guessing that you (and others) don't, and that's fine, but what I'm trying to understand is... why? And in what way? Do interactions with everyone in our social/professional circles change based on the occupant of the White House? (Unless you're living/working on Capitol Hill, I'm guessing the answer is no.) Are we implying that the events of I'm Not At Home In This World Anymore wouldn't have happened in 2015? Because we were... what? A kinder, gentler nation?
You mentioned the themes of isolation/class divides that were present in the '70s, during the era of Carter's Malaise Speech. I think you could also make the same argument for the '80s (Gordon Gekko, the rise of yuppiedom), the '90s (the disintegration of the American manufacturing base, as well as films like Falling Down), and the '00s (further shrinking of the middle-class, plus the suburban emptiness espoused in American Beauty). So I guess what I'm saying is... haven't these issues always been seen on screen in one form or another since the end of the Hays Code?
To answer your question about the presidency first: the president’s role has concrete effects that go way beyond the CNN sound bites. Over the years, because of the occupants of the White House (and their political parties), I’ve seen friends go overseas to war, had friends and family members finally get health insurance (thanks, ACA!), while having other friends now wonder if their reproductive rights are going to be taken away (no thanks, Supreme Court tilt). Decisions like how much I can save for retirement, or even if I will be able to retire, continue to rest on these kinds of broad policy decisions.
And then there’s also the general discourse, in an era where young white men once again feel safe and justified holding Nazi rallies in public. This personally makes me not nervous but more alert and vigilant when I’m out in public, as one never knows when some angry patriot is going to decide to take matters in his own hands in the name of Making America Great Again. Granted, I don’t think the risk is as bad here in Blue Chicago, but it’s there.
As far as how movies reflect the tenor of the times over the decades, I think there is a difference that separates our current era from others. You’re right, the ‘80s gave us the (in)famous Gordon Gekko speech which, contrary to what the actor Michael Douglas and director Oliver Stone expected, was interpreted as POSITIVE discourse by many film goers. But the ‘80s also gave us fare like Footloose, 9-to-5, and The Secret of My Success, popular movies that painted pictures of a society on its way up and forward despite the greed of Wall Street.
The ‘90s did produce Falling Down, but it also gave us movies like The Matrix and The Silence of the Lambs that re-defined the idea of a hero in a modern age of social and technological danger. And the most successful film series of the 2000s, The Lord of the Rings, borrowed from the distant past to create an epic tale of Good Vs. Evil, with heroes triumphing over all.
As I think about the major film projects to hit theaters since 2010, it seems to me that there’s a certain level of darkness and cynicism (sometimes termed “grittiness” or “realism”) in many of the high-profile releases. Even popcorn flicks like the chapters of the Mission: Impossible and the Marvel Cinematic Universe series now have pronounced shadowy sides that weren’t there before. The romantic ideals of pure heroism and black & white worlds of good and evil don’t seem to be making it past the development stage in Hollywood. And I can’t think of one recent movie that I would describe as out-and-out optimistic about the future. But I don’t pretend to know every film that’s been released. Can you think of any?
This tension is also being felt in larger segments of society, particularly in what’s defined as the White Middle Class, which I think this movie sets up nicely as a framework for its story. The lack of purpose and material security, which for a long time has mostly been confined to the ghettos, is now seeping into the suburbs and exurbs of the movies.
So while I don’t think I Don’t Feel… is going to win awards, I enjoyed it for what it was. I would label it a modern B-Movie that provides a hint (successfully or not) of Noir. But is re-creating a genre like that even possible today?
As for Noir, I'm certainly no expert on the genre, but isn't this a style that continually gets continually gets tweaked and reinvented through the years? Tech noir with Blade Runner, teen noir with Brick... we discussed an Australian film a while back called The Square that's seen as Neo-noir. The times have changed, but there will always be webs of deceit to be navigated, eh?
Also, I'm probably the wrong person to ask when it comes to seeking out films that are optimistic about the future! Much of the cinema I enjoy these days is the sort of grim storytelling that leaves one curled up in a fetal position by the time the credits start rolling. But even if superhero fare has become rather dark and gloomy, my guess is that films for younger viewers would probably be brighter? (That being said, the last animated film I caught, WALL-E, portrayed Future Earth as a garbage dump and humans as obese and entranced by mindless entertainment.) There's a new Mary Poppins film out, and out of curiosity, I watched the trailer -- it seemed as cheery and innocent as the original... but it's also a period piece. Could you set a new Mary Poppins in the modern age and not the 1930s*?
[*1935, to be exact. Uh, I guess there's a good reason that they didn't set this story a half-decade later instead? Might not have been the London she remembered...]
A quick perusal of Box Office Mojo turned up a few other possibilities. Keep in mind I didn't see any of these films! There was Solo -- are the new Star Wars films feel-good pictures at all? How 'bout Creed II? I will admit that I was curious about this one, simply because Rocky IV, its spiritual predecessor, was perhaps the best "good bad film" of the 1980s. (Yet I didn't watch, despite the Ivan Drago tie-in. Part of me feels that the whole "son of Drago" storyline equates to the screenwriters just mailing it in.) I would've thought that the Mamma Mia** sequel would be cheerful entertainment, yet my sister said that she sobbed during the film at one point. Sheesh. Hmm. So where does America go to forget about their troubles? Maybe there were big rom-coms? Seems like this would be a good question for a "2018 in Review" feature.
[** Wait! Haven't there been hugely-popular Step Up and Pitch Perfect film franchises this decade? OK, I'm sticking with musicals as today's primary feel-good films. Sorta ties in to your mention of Footloose from the '80s... and there was a successful remake of that film that was released in 2011. People will always love music.]
Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!
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