In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “Even with the hindsight of the rest of Alexander Payne’s, Citizen Ruth has a fresh, unique feel to it.”
“I slept in a few dumpsters. Maybe I slept on some babies.”
Besides directing segments in a couple of soft core pornos for Playboy, director Alexander Payne is definitely on the prestigious side. He’s made six features, five of which have all scored Oscar nominations of some description. None of which take place in America’s usual movie locations like New York, LA and Chicago. Alexander Payne tells stories about middle America, or in the case of The Descendants, Hawaiian America. These unusual, uncommon settings are always filled with unusual, uncommon characters. Is he making fun of these places and their inhabitants? Is he celebrating them? It’s a fine line that Payne walks expertly. And he’s done so since the very beginning, as evidenced by his feature debut, Citizen Ruth.
Unmoving and with a look of complete boredom and detachment, Ruth (Laura Dern) lays under a filthy man in a filthy apartment as he pumps away. When it’s done, Ruth doesn’t even get the one thing she wanted from it, a bed for the night. The man kicks her out, sending Ruth to her brother Tony, (Jim Kalal) looking for a place to stay. Instead she gets his disgust and $15. Enough to buy a can of spray paint from the local hardware store to get high and OD. Taken to the emergency room, Ruth recovers to the news that she is, in fact, pregnant. With four kids already taken away from her by the state, the fed up Judge Richter (David Graf) imprisons Ruth for endangering her unborn child.
In the lockup, Ruth shares a cell with Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), a staunch pro lifer serving the latest in a long run of a short stints in jail for her not so passive protests outside the local abortion clinic. Seeing Ruth as a possible convert and good publicity for the cause if she can be turned, Diane takes Ruth into the white picket fenced, suburban home she shares with husband Norm (Kurtwood Smith), and teenaged daughter, Cheryl (Alicia Witt). Ruth is ready to exploit Diane for every cent she can, but things get complicated when media attention grows, the pro choice movement tries to claim Ruth for themselves, and her choice becomes a little harder to make.
You hear about actors, generally female, being praised as brave for allowing themselves to be filmed in less than flattering ways, or when traditionally beautiful women ugly up for a serious role. I don’t usually see any special merit in these performances, but Laura Dern takes it to a really impressive level here. She didn’t have to pack on the pounds, or whack on a fake nose, or insert dodgy teeth implants. She keeps it a lot more simple and realistic here for much greater effect. Greasy hair, oily skin, and full commitment, Dern abandons all vanity to create a truly unlikable character who you fully believe is ready to trade her unborn baby for a quick buck.
Exposing the cracks beneath the pristine facade of suburban America is nothing new in cinema. And it was nothing new when Citizen Ruth came out 20 years ago. But Alexander Payne really does capture it in such a specific way. It’s almost like the way we can make fun of family members and loved ones, but get defensive and protective of them if an outsider makes the same jokes. I think Payne really does have a genuine affection for these towns and the people who live there, which is exactly why he can make fun of them in a way that is biting, but loving at the same time.
And I haven’t even mentioned yet the fact that Citizen Ruth is hilarious. Everything I’ve written so far probably makes it sound serious, maybe even a little sensationalist or melodramatic. But it really is super funny from Ruth’s first huff of paint, right through to the last placard waving protestor. There’s even a cameo from Burt Reynolds at his at his smarmy, cocky best as pro life figure head, Blaine Gibbons.
Of his six movies, Citizen Ruth is Alexander Payne’s only one not to receive a single Oscar nomination. But between that and its feature debut status, it still doesn’t mean it’s less than his awards attention grabbing follow ups. If anything, this is one of Payne’s best. Even with the hindsight of the rest of his career, Citizen Ruth has a fresh, unique feel to it. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1996 with no other Payne movies for context or as a point of reference. But it must have been great.