Revenge is one of the most elastic concepts in film. It has consumed every single genre and character type: from damaged professors (Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant Straw Dogs) to double-crossed crooks (John Boorman’s now-venerated Point Blank). What often marks a revenge film is the victim is forced out of their normal world into the realm of violence. The victim transforms into perpetrator, as use of the unfamiliar language of violence and ultimate mastery is the trajectory of the character. The new singularity of purpose was never asked for, but they sure as hell aren’t afraid to use it.
The revenge film for a female protagonist is something altogether different. It is one marked by violent attack (usually rape) and sublimation of trauma through an equal and justified violence. The women of the rape/revenge genre refuse to be victims. What began with the extremely visceral and purposeful violence of I Spit on Your Grave (1978) has reached an appropriate notch on the genre’s body-strewn timeline. Revenge movies tend to spike in periods of economic hardship or cultural transformation. With its absolutely luck-infused ultra-violence (good or bad depending on perspective) and true perpetrators being the spirit of the times, Macon Blair’s, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore may just be the perfect revenge film for our digital age.
Ruth (played with pitch-perfect deadpan disgust by Melanie Lynskey) lives in a world of unending assault. These attacks are the type that one glosses over in their daily life, shrugs off as the kinder among us try to ignore in order to move through life with a modicum of social dignity: a dog crapping on your lawn or a stranger revealing a spoiler. Why make a big deal about these things, right? But they add up, until the quietest, the most forgiving, are forced to use their voice. Ruth’s very pointed question, the one ultimately she will be driven to answer, is: Why is it okay for everyone to act like an asshole these days?
Ruth confronts her neighbor Tony (some brilliantly loopy character work by Elijah Wood) about his dog crapping on her lawn. It’s her version of “snapping” and not quite a meet-cute, but indicative of the kind of capital Q quirky spirit that drifts throughout the film. Both of these characters are simply not used to conflict IRL. There is more to this man than his spectacular rat-tail, as she will soon find a comrade in a war against the downright rude and ultimately dangerous.
After Ruth’s grandmother’s silverware, prescription pills (a symptom of our age), and her computer are stolen from her house, she tries to do the right thing. She calls the police and is greeted with the healthy dose of victim blaming that usually greets women down at the police station. The cop asks if she left the door open, and she isn’t sure. Rightfully, she won’t let this one go.
Ruth soon finds herself thrust into some amateur sleuthing and recruits Tony and his martial-arts loving ways to confront the criminals. One face off involves a mace, most likely used in the past for some LARPing, that accidentally breaks a man’s nose in a clumsy scuffle. The violence is sudden, awkward and totally without intention, as most victimization happens these days. It is the result of avatars colliding, people who simply do not think through possible end results and live in a consequence-less, perpetual present tense. This is the recipe for the random.
Later, Ruth and Tony, arriving at an outdoor pawn palace, stalk towards grandma’s silverware, gearing up for confrontation. Tony asks Ruth if they should hold hands “like an engaged couple.” The hilarious, heartwarming aside is pure playacting, but like many of the masks we wear, reveals underlying truth. They, like many of us in the digital age, are only comfortable emoting through fantasy. The moment thrusts the film into the uncharted territory of the Revenge Film Rom-Com.
Without revealing too much more of the plot (I’d be no better than the jerk at the bar), I will say that much of the violence in the film involves characters’ hands (including Ruth’s naked ring finger). It is a perfect choice as it is our hands that are capable of shaping our world, of making things better. In a time where we feel like the world is happening to us and most of our agency is online, violence towards the tools of creation is the perfect visual metaphor.
The insight that sometimes bad things happen ‘just because’ is truly the wick of the revenge movie. It certainly isn’t new cinematic territory, (I would say almost all the Coen Brothers’ films explore the role of dumb luck), but the violence in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore has a bawdy poetry to it. You will laugh as you recoil, and it offers an oddly poignant brand of redemption. It is certainly entertaining though not your typical date-night cinema. The film offers a comforting ray of accountability in a time when most of us no longer know what the hell is going on.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore can be streamed on Netflix.