Directed by: Macon Blair
Runtime: 1hr, 33mins
Comedy, Crime, Drama
Review by: Zach Owens
Netflix gets a lot of credit for their original TV shows, but other than “Beasts of No Nation” their original films have received far less attention. One of their better, but lesser known films, is this dark comedy by actor, writer and director Macon Blair.
A lot of its quirky humor is found in life’s little injustices as well as the bigger ones. Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is at her wits end. From her job, that has her listening to angsty senior citizens laying alone on their death beds, to the people who drive big trucks that pollute the air, to her neighbors who leave dog poop in her yard, to the criminals that break in a steal her belongings, to the cops who just don’t have time or interest in helping her recover her stolen items, she has become disillusioned with this world and the robbery is the last straw. With nothing else to do and nowhere else to turn, she decides to conduct her own investigation.
She does, however, get help from one neighbor who does care. The dog walker who accidentally left dog poop in her yard, feels like he owes her one after she confronts him about it. And he realizes that a crime against one person in the community affects them all. He’s Tony (Elijah Wood), a good-hearted, church-going, quiet man whose violent temper towards injustice matches that of her own. It helps that he knows a bit about self defense and owns a few exotic weapons as well.
Together they use an app on her phone to track down the laptop that was stolen. It was being used by a group of young people living together, but they’re clearly not the ones responsible for the theft. They only bought it from a secondhand store. A search of that store puts Ruth and Tony on the trail of the original perpetrators and a bigger underground world of crime only they care enough to investigate.
To an extent it pokes fun at the inefficiency of local police, but it’s far from a scathing indictment. In fact, it sympathizes with them and the amount of varying degrees of crimes they’re constantly working on. But it never goes as far as to condone Ruth taking the law into her own hands. If anything it proves the danger in doing so.
While it starts out simply enough in its indie comedy roots, and even borrows a bit from rom-com structure, it picks up the pace in its second half to become something of a tense thriller with some snappy editing. It’s something of a minor miracle that director Macon Blair, making his directorial debut, can balance all of these elements while still maintaining its comedic origins. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker this could have easily failed in any number of ways. Blair never lets the comedy get so over-the-top that the stakes lose their punch. Nor does it delve so deep into melodrama that it becomes painful to watch. It’s a fine line to walk, but Blair pulls it off like he’s been there before. That’s likely thanks in part to his participation in Jeremy Saulnier’s very similar films “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” (Blair played the main character in “Blue Ruin”). Here he maintains a very “Saulnier-esque” thriller about regular people who are in over their heads, on both sides of the fight.
In fact, part of why the humor and intensity works simultaneously is because it’s not about professional criminals and action stars. The fact that it’s people who aren’t quite used to this kind of life makes them more likely to mess it all up in humorous ways, yet the situation is still dangerous enough to maintain some suspense.
It’s also worth noting the strong performances by Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, who both manage to make likable people out of these quirky, offbeat characters. While this is certainly Lynskey’s film, Wood’s character has a very unique, 80’s punk look that’ll surely be featured on most of the film’s fan art. The 80’s is also represented in at least one song on the soundtrack – a well-timed use of one of my favorite songs by Echo & The Bunnymen (Bring on the Dancing Horses).
I like that Ruth is tired of bad people getting away with taking advantage of people and getting away with it. I can identify with her for being sick of life’s little injustices. I also like that even after doing something about one particular instance, the world hasn’t changed. People still drive around in big trucks that pollute the air and people still say overused idioms out of some sense of decorum, even if they don’t make much sense. But sometimes you have to stand up for yourself in this cruel world, and that can make things just a little bit better. Maybe just don’t take things as far as Ruth.