Citizen Ruth (1996), following the titular, drug-addicted pregnant woman (Laura Dern) being used by pro-lifers and pro-choicers, was the first feature by Alexander Payne. I often get the impression that Payne dislikes his own characters, but he especially hates those in Citizen Ruth. There is not an ounce of sympathy for Ruth, who is not deterred from inhalants or alcohol even when she is swayed toward keeping her baby. The political factions are portrayed even worse, as emotionless souls seeking to “send a message” by using Ruth.
We meet the pro-lifers first, who bail Ruth out of jail for her first felony charge (she has at least 16 misdemeanors to her name, too), of criminally endangering a fetus, after hearing that the judge will give her a lighter sentence if she has an abortion. Ruth already has four children in three different homes and has no address, so we know why he suggests it, but our moral reservations about this are ignored, and this point is never addressed.
The pro-life family, who insists on treating their guest with the utmost respect, is endlessly satirized as bourgeois scum. They wait for Ruth to arrive at the dinner table for over an hour, starving their son in the process; they scare reporters off their lawn with a rifle; they sing biblical hymns regularly, and they favor their “miracle” child over the rebellious, older daughter. They are figureheads of the “Baby Savers,” who protest outside abortion clinics and even run a fake clinic to convince women of the evils of abortion. Even as Ruth is convinced of a miracle, “no one ever bailed me out of jail before,” she remains ungrateful to her saviors, locking herself in the bathroom, dressing inappropriately, and stealing a child’s model glue to huff. Payne holds a large deal of contempt for the lower class but also finds time to mock the practices of conservative bourgeoisie.
After an incident that sees this family hand Ruth off to a different Baby Saver, actually a spy for the pro-choice group, Ruth finds herself in a tug-of-war. Ruth is now with a pair of lesbian lovers who worship the moon. At this point, the movie could end—there are lunatics on both sides of a political issue. They will go to any means necessary to “win” their battle, ignoring the person whom they use. The film reaches a thematic end point here. Unfortunately, there is almost an hour left in the movie, as Payne beats us over the head with how trashy Ruth is, siding with whoever bribes her with the most money and continues to show the “politics-first” mindset of both sides in increasingly unsubtle ways. The two political factions split screen-time, their antics going from slightly ridiculous to completely ridiculous. The acting among members of both factions is intentionally aloof, delivering their lines in the most patronizing and laughable fashion at first and then resorting to screaming before going back again. It’s good for laughs, but it floods the film with so much satire that we begin drowning in it.
Luckily, Citizen Ruth has a couple developments that successfully parody extreme political groups but also introduce an understated complexity to the film. Ruth is caught in a choice that two groups try to make for her and she has an outburst proclaiming that she has figured it out. Luckily, the situation is reversed as Ruth begins to encourage the bidding that takes hold, and she is now the one making the decisions for everyone else. Thanks to a great portrayal by Laura Dern, who turns rootless trailer-trash into three-dimensional person when she has the chance, it feels like a diabolical scheme. It does not make us like Ruth anymore, but it provides subtext to a film that is otherwise filled with billboards. It’s the film’s greatest triumph, aided by a well-executed realization that members of both sides literally fail to recognize Ruth, coming to see her only as a symbol of a moral debate.
Less successfully, this raises the issue of how much money should matter when abortion is the question at-hand. It’s always a relevant question, but its presence here is more incidental than important, as Payne focuses more on exploitation rather than giving us a look into Ruth’s actual feelings about her situation. Likewise, the morality of the judge’s offer, despite being the domino that sets off everything else, is entirely ignored. The judge is blatantly offering a reduced sentence in exchange for an abortion, arguably an abuse of power to push his own ideology, but just as likely a sign of his looking out for Ruth, who is not really a bad person so much as a defeated one, offering her a logical solution to her biggest problem yet. That movie, the one where we explore Ruth’s potential to change and a judge offers a morally questionable solution, would be far more interesting than the one we get, about unlikable groups and individuals who turn a moral issue about an individual into a political one where, according to Payne, nobody has compassion, just their own war to win.
Alexander Payne proves here that he is a skilled filmmaker. He exhibits great command of the frame, flares of inventive visuals and comedy, an admirable sense of humor, and good storytelling. It’s a shame that his feelings for whom he portrays spills into the audience, as he steers us away from his most intelligent issues so he can hold our hand through much easier ones. Payne is no better than his characters are. He uses them for his own political means while ignoring the souls he exploits.