For many of us, the most aggravating part of our day is being reminded of how many assholes there are in the world. Every time a truck cuts you off in rush hour traffic or your package gets pilfered from your doorstep, you’ve likely experienced some interaction that’s left you deeply frustrated over how easy it is for humans to simply not care. When said asshole continues their life presumably unimpeded, you wonder how this person lives with themselves. And in the absence of justice, it’s tempting to obsess over whether or not there’s a chance for retribution or, at the very least, a sense of remorse.
We have now stumbled upon the thesis of the 2017 film I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood. The cumbersome title is derived from an early 20th-century folk song of a similar name, “I Can’t Feel At Home In This World Any More,” and the Woody Guthrie version, “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World No More.” Written and directed by Macon Blair, this film went on to win the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and was later picked up by Netflix.
Ruth (Lynskey) is a post-op facility nursing assistant who’s having a bad day. Her horrible patient has unexpectedly died, people are assholes at the grocery store, and worse yet, when she tries to relax at a bar with a beer and an epic fantasy novel, the stranger that sidles up next to her proceeds to spoil it (dear reader, if the movie ended right then and there with her smashing the bottle and jabbing the pointy end into his neck followed by the credits rolling, I would deem this the most important film of our time). Things go from bad to worse when she arrives home to find her house has been burglarized, her laptop and grandmother’s silverware gone. Police come to investigate and their insinuations of blame do little to make her feel better. As Ruth goes about cleaning the mess that’s been made of her home, she notices something amiss along the backyard fence. When she takes a closer look, a clear impression of a footprint can be seen in the soil. After a quick trip to the store, she returns with a bag of plaster of Paris, which she mixes and pours over the print, making an identical copy of the thief’s shoe sole. Her peace of mind shaken and faith in the world broken, Ruth pushes aside her timidity and decides to track down the thief herself, enlisting the help of her eccentric neighbor, Tony (Wood). Mayhem ensues.
While the movie goes in completely unforeseen directions, one of the few consistencies is Ruth’s resourcefulness. There are a few clever moments throughout the film, but capturing a perfect likeness of the suspect’s footprint ranks pretty high. Plaster of Paris is a fine white powder that, when combined with water, is a quick-setting material that can be used for creating molds and developing casts. It’s also used for walls. There are a few different types of plaster in the world, including lime plaster, made from limestone, and cement plaster. What’s commonly referred to as plaster of Paris, however, is made from gypsum, a mineral composed of calcium sulfate hydrate. It’s fairly soft and has a number of modern-day applications such as chalk and drywall. It’s said that after the 1666 Great Fire of London, plaster became a common means of covering wood walls so fires would prove less disastrous. With the discovery of a huge deposit of gypsum beneath Montmartre—it was a hearty mining industry until the mid-19th century when deposits started getting tapped out and folks began to realize that converting the land you reside on into Swiss cheese is kind of a terrible idea; you can still find evidence of the abandoned quarries in places such as the Parc des Buttes Chaumont—the city’s standing as a major source of plaster led to the material becoming known as “plaster of Paris” (though plaster, in general, has been in use since ancient Egypt).
One of the oldest (and most well-known) uses of plaster was for stabilizing bone breaks and fractures. Materials like wooden sticks and wax were used in ancient times, but when plaster of Paris started coming into wide use throughout Europe, medical professionals started experimenting with it. There are records of broken legs being placed into sealed wooden boxes with plaster poured around and left to set. Unsurprisingly, having one’s leg converted to a giant block doesn’t go over well with patients, as it requires them to be bedridden. It’s also a risky maneuver, because as it so happens, once plaster of Paris is mixed with water and begins to harden, it undergoes a chemical reaction that makes it emit heat, reaching temperatures up to 140F/60C. People have sustained burn injuries ranging from mild to severe enough to require amputation (the level of heat is directly proportionate to the amount of plaster, so small quantities are fairly safe). Heat issue aside, people sought solutions for the block leg problem, and in the 1850s a Dutch military surgeon named Antonius Mathijsen figured out that soaking bandages in plaster and then wrapping it around the afflicted limb was far more efficient.
Indeed, its ability to be molded is what makes plaster of Paris so useful. Long used in the major art movements and formidable academies of Western Europe throughout the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries (especially as a means of providing copies of famous ancient sculptures for student use), its applications for molds has expanded greatly. Dental impressions of teeth came about in the 18th century, said to be the invention of Frederick the Great’s dentist (this is disputed). Upon realizing the efficacy of plaster for dentistry, forensic investigators began widely using plaster of Paris or dental stone (also derived from gypsum) for tire and foot impressions left behind at crime scenes.
Though most of these processes have been modernized with the use of silicones and other variants, plaster of Paris is more easily accessible for the average person, which likely plays a part in Ruth’s motivation to use it. With it comes a desire to see justice meted out and a willingness to see to it herself, especially after the detective assigned to her case shrugs off this new piece of evidence. She holds on to the mold anyway, a decision that comes into play later.
(Major spoilers in this next paragraph)
As Ruth begins her investigation in earnest, what starts off as merely reckless takes a quick turn to hazardous, as Ruth begins encountering the people adjacent to the criminal responsible. Luckily for her, she has an unwitting ability to incapacitate evil-doers on par with the titular protagonists of Tucker and Dale vs Evil, and though it’s not as bloody, she’s certainly efficient. The most shocking scene of the film occurs when Ruth is confronted in her home by the thief, Christian (Devon Graye, who, with the dyed blond hair, looks like a nightmarish combination of ’90s era Eminem and an Aphex Twin album cover). When he approaches her from behind, she’s startled and instinctively grabs the bag containing the plaster mold, and the arc of the swing results, quite accidentally, in his windpipe being crushed. Christian, now in agony and struggling for air, stumbles out of the house and into the street, where he is then hit by a city bus.
(Spoilers done; safety zone from here on out)
While the plaster mold provides her with the initiative to begin her journey—and does come in quite handy later—in the end, her resilience is all she has to rely on when her life is in danger. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore isn’t about justice or even revenge; it’s about learning how to find a measure of peace in a world that’s severely lacking in it. At one point, when someone asks Ruth what her goal is, her response is simply, “For people to not be assholes.” But as she begins to learn, that’s an impossibility, much like asking water to not be wet. We can, however, be comforted by the fact that although there are plenty of assholes in the world, there are also many people who very good and very brave. And when we begin to nurture those qualities in ourselves, we have a much better shot at seeing it in others.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is available for viewing on Netflix.
A very cool open access article from 1959 with explicit instructions on using plaster to capture foot and tire tracks here.
A charming YouTube video on the process of making a two-part plaster mold for ceramics by Dutch artist Eva Stalinski here.
Kaleena Rivera is an academic librarian and writer. When she’s not trying to remember the difference between a cast and a mold, she can be found on Twitter.
Header Image Source: Netflix