Citizen Ruth (1996)
Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne has been a presence in American film since the late 1990s, starting with this debut feature. Filmmaking has been a passion in Payne’s life since he was a teenager and got his first Super 8mm camera. Payne would eventually attend Stanford but not study film. Instead, he majored in Spanish and History. Then, in the late 1980s, he attended UCLA film school, where his thesis film, The Passion of Martin, started the ball rolling for future projects.
If I had to describe Payne’s work, I would say it’s broken into distinct periods. From Citizen Ruth to Election to About Schmidt, he was centered on the Midwest American experience. Since he was raised in Omaha, Nebraska, that makes sense; he wrote from a place of understanding. Sideways marked a change in aesthetics and setting, which continued into The Descendants. We’re now in a strange period for the director. He directed a sort of return to his roots in Nebraska but then took a wild left turn with Downsizing, which was a box office bomb and poorly received. Because Payne’s work is so distinctly American, I wanted to see what it communicates about the culture over the three decades the director had been making films.
Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) is a collapsing human being. She’s an addict who will do almost anything to get money to purchase drugs. Her drugs of choice are not simply weed or something innocuous but huffing glue and other chemicals that cause her to black out. Ruth already has four children, all of whom are in the state’s custody due to her negligence. After being arrested for vagrancy and drug use, Ruth learns she is pregnant again, and the judge discreetly tells her after the arraignment that if she were a responsible person, she would terminate. She’s bailed out by Norm and Gail (Kurtwood Smith & Mary Kay Place), radical right-wing Evangelicals obsessed with stopping abortions. They encourage Ruth to keep the baby and believe that through their goodwill and prayer, she will straighten out her life. Meanwhile, a group of abortion-rights activists also want to take Ruth into their care and encourage her to abort. Lost within all of this is Ruth’s autonomy as a human being.
Ultimately, Citizen Ruth is not a film explicitly about abortion but a critique of fanaticism. The characters who have chained themselves to their ideologies have convinced themselves that this is a selfless endeavor; they are doing this for the sake of the people they meet. Yet, in almost every case, the audience can clearly see they are motivated by selfish reasons. For the religious, it’s another case of people of “faith” being unable to believe unless other people also accept the terms & structures of the religion. Confirmation via the actions of others. For the pro-abortion group, they have become so wrapped up in conflict with the religious group that it’s more about “defeating” their perceived enemy. The most honest person in the movie is Harlan (M.C. Gainey), a guard at the clinic who straight up pays Ruth $15,000 to go through with her abortion after Norm & Gail offer the same amount for her to go through with the pregnancy. Harlan says he has no moral qualms buying Ruth off as the opposition surely doesn’t.
I feel iffy about these sorts of movies. To tackle political issues through cinema and your central theme essentially is “both sides get carried away” feels incredibly reductive in the face of America’s current problems. I agree with Payne’s thoughts that Leftist movements can get caught up in the same sort of reactionary fervor that fuels right-wing movements and become shadows of them. The challenge of pushing for successful left-wing movements is to find ways to recognize the gifts & needs of the individual while providing solutions to problems centered in collective methods. Unfortunately, because the culture is so intensely centered on individual desires, we often warp well-intentioned ideologies into our personal vendettas. This will be the death of any Left forward momentum, personal grievance as politics.
The character of Ruth, played with such extraordinary frustrating complexity by Laura Dern, is the most interesting part of the movie. This is a person with no desire to stop using drugs. And the drugs she uses are particularly awful for people, often causing pretty nasty brain damage. The religious people pushing her to have the baby feels completely absurd because the child will inevitably end up in the foster system and, from what we see statistically, will follow their mother’s path. The judge is callous in his firm push for Ruth to abort, as is the pro-abortion group. I specifically call them “pro-abortion,” not “pro-choice,” as Ruth’s autonomy is a source of frustration for them as it is for the religious characters. When we are so sure we are correct, it is difficult to accept someone making a choice we disagree with, especially surrounding issues as charged as abortion.
My personal view is that I believe abortion should be legal, accessible, and free to anyone who needs it. Whether or not I think a pregnancy should be terminated or not isn’t important. That is a decision to be made by the pregnant person. The characters in the film think ahistorically, which is not uncommon in America. They have no sense of the history of reproductive rights in the country. For centuries, non-white people had no reproductive autonomy and were forced to breed and terminate at the whims of the establishment. People were forcibly sterilized if they were found to be “undesirable” and forced to carry fetuses to term if more labor was needed for exploitation. If Ruth had been a BIPOC character, I’d be interested to see how different the story felt and played out.
As the first work from Payne, Citizen Ruth is rough around the edges. His ambition may have gotten the better of him by tackling such an intense subject right out of the gate. I don’t think he ultimately delivers the sort of biting satire that the film promises. There are some clever observations and a few chuckles. My opinion is that if you are going to satirize something about American politics, you need to go deep into absurdity, and I think the film touches on that but gets scared and backs away. I was impressed, though, with Burt Reynolds as religious leader Blaine Gibbons whose relationship with a young boy he “saved” was played with brilliance. I haven’t seen too many Reynolds movies, but his performance here was a big standout for me.
From the start, Payne was very comfortable working in a Midwestern milieu. The cadence of speech, the slowness, and the way the flat forever-horizon landscape influences the work are all palpable. I think the whole center of the country is grossly overlooked in American film as studios prefer urban environments and often make rural life a punchline. The lives of rural people are complex, filled with contradictions, and just as reflective as anyone else living in the country. This nonsense of a rural/urban divide should be done away with as well as the whole “real America” rhetoric. I think Payne can capture those nuances interestingly. His next film would propel him to a level of fame that would shape the rest of his career.