Citizen Ruth (1996)
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Cinematographer: James Glennon
by Jon Cvack
It took me longer than it should have to get around to Citizen Ruth and I loved every single minute of it. For a directorial debut, lower budget feature this has everything you’d want from Alexander Payne. All his trademarks - great characters, subtle camera work, hilarious dialogues, and a grand commentary beneath it all.
Ruth Snoops (Laura Dern) gets in trouble for sniffing glue and is put up by a pro-life Christian activist family. However, when the Judge who sentences Laura admonishes her to get an abortion for the sake of the child and the family rushes into the rescue, Laura is then taken in by a pro-choice family. Indifferent to either persuasion, determined to keep sniffing glue and do whatever she wants, things culminate in a stand off between the pro lifers vs. pro choicers in a brilliant third act.
I know few directors who can create such well balanced satire, adding just enough substance to remain believable and sincere without offending. While the characters are larger than life collectively, individually they are incredibly unique and human. It’s Payne’s phenomenal ability to find the truth in something that seems so small and anodyne when introduced, taking a seemingly minute character or element and showing us its great depth and insight. Laura Dern puts on an amazing performance, if not one of her greatest, as someone who can snap in a flash, unleashing a barrage of obscenities. She is completely apolitical, having little patience or concern for all the bickering and politics. So long as no one tells her what to do she’s fine and will treat others with the same deference. There’s a desperation to figure things out, knowing that she’s far from perfect. I’m not sure what Ruth Snoop's future holds, and honestly, given the character's trajectory, I feel like she’ll end up dead in a few years, but at least it’d be her choice.
The casting is absolutely flawless, featuring many of Payne’s later collaborators. The Christian Right family is able to capture the suburban religious folk, with its uniform neighborhood, uninspired furnishings, and the aluminum chain linked fences separating everyone from everyone else in the blandest way possible. Their selfless concern for others and the gross hypocrisy over failing to see their own children’s problems is a fascinating subplot. They don’t notice the daughter fucking the boyfriend, or that following the words of Jesus means fighting through other’s addictions and shortcomings. They give just enough effort to feel good about themselves, and if it fails no big deal. Except their pro-life beliefs, those are unwavering. If only they gave the rest of their lives a quarter of the passion they did for pro-life activism they would be far beyond those confining suburbs.
BELOW: Even this brief 2:30 clip shows the story's multiple layers upon layers
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