Silver City (2004)

Writer’s Note: This was originally submitted for publication December 20, 2020, over two weeks prior to the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol Building.  Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it? 

While on my recent writer’s retreat, I spent some time free of wi-fi and, when I had run out of ideas for the day, enjoying the cornucopia of DVD delights that my cabin’s hosts had left behind. There were 21 DVDs, of  which three were things that I had at home (Stranger than Fiction, Cabin in the Woods, and something I’m too embarrassed to admit), four that were exercise/yoga related, and a number of westerns that I obviously ignored. Most of them seem to have come from that 2003-2009 “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years” era, having been purchased from the now-defunct company during its last years, with a decidedly independent bent. And so it came to pass that I have now seen Silver City, the 2004 political satire directed by Passion Fish-helmer John Sayles. 

The plot is relatively labyrinthine and cribs from Chinatown (there’s even discussion of water rights in a potential real estate development) and the then-contemporary election year political discourse du jour, which is depressing both in how unbelievably stupid the whole thing was and how much more dignified it was than 2020. Our lead is Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former reporter turned private investigator after filing an explosive, provocative story whose informants later recanted under pressure from the political establishment, ending that phase of his career and ultimately bankrupting the paper that employed him. Danny is brought in when dim-witted Colorado gubernatorial hopeful and George W. Bush analog Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) accidentally hooks a dead body while shooting a bucolic political ad that sees him fishing in a  pristine lake. His cutthroat campaign manager Karl Rove Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires Danny’s agency to help determine where the body, that of a tattooed Latino man, came from while keeping the whole thing under wraps. Danny is aided in his investigation by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), a former colleague in his past life as a newspaperman who now keeps the public informed in his own jaded way: leaking enough of the incomprehensibly large, true evil done by government that is too tied up in corporate interests, in the hopes of getting legitimate news outlets to pull the thread enough to take down bad political actors. Along the way, he also receives assistance from Tony Guerra (Sal Lopez), who works within the undocumented community to try and identify the dead man. 

There are three major enemies of the Pilager campaign that Danny is sent to investigate/quell: right wing radio pundit and political commentator Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); former mining safety inspector Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), who was ousted in disgrace following a falsified scandal involving an accident; and Maddy Pilager (Daryl Hannah), Dickie’s disgraced “nympho” sister, the free-spirited black sheep of the family and once-and-current Olympic archery hopeful. Of them, we spend very little time with Castleton, but Ferrer makes an impression as what a right wing nutjob used to look like: power-hungry, conceited, and exploitative, but educated, tempered, and articulate, back when the people in such positions were merely obstructive backward, not completely insane or opposed to scientific progress, immoral but not amoral (Ben Shapiro clearly thinks he’s the heir apparent to William F. Buckley but he could never, and Buckley himself was a terrible person, but I’d take him over Charlie Kirk or Alex Jones any day of the week and twice on Sunday). It’s a stark reminder of how far we’ve fallen in so short a time—I’m in my mid-thirties, and I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the presidential election that happened the year this movie was released, so chew on that for a second. As a mirror of American politics of the new millennium, it feels like this movie is a reverse portrait of Dorian Gray that, though depressingly hideous, has grown more lovely with time as the body politik visibly betrays every hidden malice, every wicked act of greed, and every failure of decency

The titular “Silver City” is a proposed land development deal to build a planned community in land that is beautiful but unfit for human habitation: mining has made Swiss cheese of the hills and rendered the groundwater contaminated, but Pilager patriarch Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy) made a bad investment in it and was bailed out when family friend and multi-millionaire business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) purchased the land from him far above its value. In exchange, Benteen wants to skirt the regulations that have prevented the development of Silver City and, one presumes, swim around in his profits like Scrooge McDuck. Kristofferson is fantastic here, appearing in only a few scenes but leaving a lasting impression and an air of malice, casual evil-by-way-of-enterprise. In his major scene, he takes Dickie on a horseback ride through beautiful, uncorrupted nature while decrying the regulations that keep it so; he can barely contain his bile as he curses the name of the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, and it’s evident that in his dreams he sees the purple mountain majesty in the background as crawling with excavators and bulldozers like ants, but he paints his vision of the future with such a lovely palate that Dickie buys it.

Benteen is aided in this endeavor on multiple fronts. There’s sad Mort Seymour (David Clennon), who’s trying desperately to sell local government authorities on the Silver City idea, and who gains ground when Benteen puppeteers a casual, ostensibly coincidental run-in with Dickie at a local restaurant (Dickie’s election to the office of governor is treated as a foregone conclusion). Also on Benteen’s bench is slick, sleazy lobbyist Chandler Tyson (Billy Zane at his absolute oiliest), who presages the Kirks and Shapiros of the present as someone with utterly no moral compunction about flat-out lying with a straight face. His moral compass points due south, as he demonstrates in one of the film’s best, most nauseating lines: “Every idea, no matter how politically incorrect, deserves an advocate.” What he’s talking about in that moment is his previous testimony to Congress that there is no identifiable link between smoking and lung cancer. The idea was absurd, even for 2004, but it foretells a time when the general public would fall for easily disprovable scientific fact, like that the earth is (generally) round, that climate change is real and affected by human action, and that COVID-19 is real and deadly. 

Narratively, Danny’s investigation is complicated by two issues in his personal life: his employer Grace (Mary Kay Place) is married to Mort, which we learn late in the film, and the impending marriage of Tyson to Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a morally just crusading reporter who has a huge blindspot regarding Tyson’s lack of a conscience and also happens to be Danny’s ex. It’s clear to everyone paying attention that Dickie is completely out of his depth when he’s confronted without extensive preparation and coaching, at which point he repeats himself, cites jingoistic jingles, and makes it clear via an inability to express a single intelligent thought extemporaneously that he lacks any real savvy or acumen. (Remember, this was made in a time before The Right realized that they could get people to slurp that up with a spoon as long as it was sufficiently combined with white supremacist rhetoric.) This isn’t really relevant to the mystery of the watery corpse, however, except in the way that evil breeds evil. As it turns out,the deceased Lazaro Huerta (Donevon Martinez) was an undocumented day laborer who died in one of Benteen’s facilities. To prevent the exposure of Benteen as both (a) a hypocrite who exploits immigrants for cheap labor while decrying the practice and (b) a manufacturer who fails, mortally, to meet the OSHA regulatory guidelines that he derides as part of his deregulation agenda, Huerta’s body was hauled into the hills and thrown down an abandoned mineshaft that had previously been used to dispose of Benteen’s toxic waste. Casey Lyle (remember him?) had been trying to blow the whistle on the fact that the mines were now prone to collecting water in times of torrential rains and causing flooding in the future home of Silver City; one such flood had washed Huerta’s body into the lake, as will everything that’s hidden there, eventually.

There’s one man who could help reveal all of this: Vince Esparza (Luis Saguar), a cutthroat who obtains and arranges laborers, including for Benteen on the site where Huerta was killed. He threatens Danny and is shot by an overzealous sheriff’s deputy,  the two men who initially told Danny about the mineshaft are captured by I.N.S. and prevented from corroborating Danny’s information; when he returns later, the entrance to the mine has been sealed. Grace also fires him, and all hope seems lost as Benteen’s organization has bought up the news outlet for which Nora writes, killing any chance of exposing the rotten heart of American politics. Except … Paine and his team have managed to expose the thread, if someone else in the media can only pull it and see where it leads. But, as every fish in the picturesque lake that girds Silver City dies in a mass event that leads us to the credits, the message is clear: even if the truth is learned, it won’t un-destroy the ecosystem.

Silver City received mixed reviews in its time, and that’s well-deserved. The core of the film’s narrative at first presents itself as a murder mystery, and it ultimately is exactly that, metaphorically—who killed Lazaro Huerta? The system. We just get there through a roundabout investigation, and by that time we’ve pulled the thread of something bigger, more insidious, and, worst of all, entrenched. Conceptually, that’s a rich vein to be mined, so to speak, but what we’re left with teeters on the edge of being a little too on-the-nose. We need to care about Danny, at least a little bit, and it’s hard not to—Danny Huston can pull of “charismatic loser journeyman” with charm to spare—but his trail of discovery has in its margins a truly harrowing story about oppression under a capitalism that seeks to consume nature for no other reason than because it’s there, and does it on the back of exploited labor while paying silver-tongued lobbyists to lie, baldly. That something like this is offset by conversations between Danny and Nora about their former relationship, in which she basically tells him that he was just too damn good and married to the job, or a scene in which Nora waxes philosophical about Danny with Tyson while the latter gears up for a bike ride while expounding on the lack of objective morality, feel very Sorkin-y and pedestrian. The comedy is just too broad, perhaps as best epitomized by Hannah’s Maddy character, a manic pixie middle aged woman who smokes pot, has a weird hobby (archery), and delivers huge pieces of exposition while jumping on a trampoline.* There’s a deadly serious thing happening here, but the whole thing feels very flippant, because—did you notice it? “Pilager” sounds like “pillager”! That gets a Perfunctory Liberal Chortle™ and then we’re on to a scene in which a man is crushed under a car while trying to learn Huerta’s identity. It’s a three-flavor swirl of political satire that’s too broad, a background event with implications that encompass broad ecological destruction and consequence-free manslaughter, and also Danny and his ex-girlfriend considering getting back together. The narrative throughline is solid, but everything hanging off of it makes the thing unwieldy. Worst of all, the film has made me wistful for the immediate post-9/11 years. Is this really what it’s come to? 

*Without taking her shoes off first!

-Mark “Boomer Redmond

Movie of the Month: Citizen Ruth (1996)

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Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Britnee, Brandon, and Alli watch Citizen Ruth (1996).

Boomer: Citizen Ruth is twenty years old this year, but the topics that it tackles and the way that it approaches those ideas is both frank and depressing. Reproductive rights and agency over one’s body are, sadly and frustratingly, still topics that the public sphere considers to be up for debate, just as they were in 1996. The film tells the story of Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), an homeless drug addict and frequent tenant of the local jail, who has had four different children taken from her by the state because of her overall unfitness to care for herself, let alone a child. After she extorts some cash from her brother (who has custody of two of her four kids), she buys a can of patio sealant and huffs it in an alley, where she is discovered in a daze by local police. At her hearing, she learns that she is pregnant for the fourth time; the state has chosen to pursue felony indictment of Ruth for her endangerment of the fetus. A kind judge suggests to Ruth that an “accident” could reduce this charge to a misdemeanor, but she is convinced otherwise when a group of anti-abortion crusaders led by Gail Stoney (Mary Kay Place) spends the night in the same cell. The Stoney family, including patriarch Norm (Kurtwood Smith) and teenaged daughter Cheryl (Alicia Witt) take Ruth into their home. Ruth takes the first opportunity that she can to get high, ending in an altercation that leads Pro-Lifer Diane (Swoosie Kurtz) to offer her home to Ruth as well, but she turns out to be a mole for the Pro-Choice movement, along with her domestic partner Rachel (Kelly Preston). Soon, both sides of the debate are raging against the other over the future of Ruth’s unborn child, represented by Pro-Life champion Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds) and Pro-Choice queen Jessica Weiss (Tippi Hedren).

Director Alexander Payne has said that this film is less about reproductive rights vis-à-vis abortion than it is about fanaticism, and that this particular fight was chosen simply because it was the most openly divisive political fight of the time. Although I certainly understand that point, it’s impossible to divorce the concept of fanaticism from the topic of the debate at hand, and the lens through which each side is viewed is telling in the way that men are the central point in many ways, despite this ostensibly being a women’s issue (as it is in the real world). There’s a great moment close to the end of the film that shows that the Pro-Lifers have tracked down and recruited Ruth’s own mother in an attempt to sway Ruth to their side, complete with a bullhorn-enhanced argument between the two women that reveals Ruth provided sexual favors to (at least) one of her mother’s suitors while underage, speaking volumes about the home situation from which Ruth and women like her are birthed, ultimately pointing the finger back at men and their attitudes about sex, entitlement, and gendered power politics. Male needs are prioritized over women, from Norm growing increasingly exasperated by Ruth’s long bath time, delaying his dinner, to his wife’s fawning over their son while all but ignoring their daughter. Even among the doe-eyed moon-worshipping loons who populate the Pro-Choice side of the debate, the arguments women present to Ruth fail to sway her like the offer of money… that comes from a man.

There’s also some discussion of class as well, albeit more subtly. Just look at the overall dreary aesthetic of the world Ruth lives in, from the flophouse where she has sex with her ex (in the opening of the film, creating a rhetorical space in which Ruth is taken advantage of, to be bookended at the end by the argument with her mother) to the dilapidated house where her brother lives. As the war for Baby Tanya first begins, Ruth is raised from homelessness into the modest (in that the-frillier-the-doilies-the-closer-to-God/”we homeschool our children because of evolution” way) home of the Stoneys and then into the gorgeous farmhouse that Diane and Rachel share. Neither of these factions understands Ruth’s life and world outside of their shallow conceptions of how she must live, and as a result fail to appreciate the gravity of her situation in any way except how she can be used to benefit their respective causes.

What did you think, Britnee? I felt a lot of sympathy for Ruth even though she was, frankly, a horrible person. Did you feel the same way? And do you think that was because of Dern’s nuance or the representation of the world Ruth lived in?

Britnee: As my grandmother would say, “Pauvre Ruth!” I felt sorry for her since the film’s opening scene, where she’s having emotionless sex with her horrible boyfriend before he throws a television at her. Just when I think this girl’s life can’t get any worse, she turns out to be a homeless addict who has a terrible, insensitive family. And to top it all off, she has 3 children she’s lost custody to. Can this girl catch a break? Ruth comes off as a really awful person, but there’s much to be taken into consideration before making any harsh judgement about her. Let’s start with the relationship she has with the only two family members of Ruth’s we’re introduced to: her brother and her mother. In the beginning of the film, she goes to her brother, who is raising two of her children, for help after being kicked out of her boyfriend’s garbage apartment. Her brother is annoyed and angry to find that his sister showed up at his home asking for shelter, so he sends her off with $15. Then, we’re introduced to her mother at the Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice battle at the end of the film. As Boomer previously stated, we get a pretty clear picture of Ruth’s upbringing after she is accused of performing sexual activities with her mother’s boyfriends. It’s no wonder she turned to drugs and alcohol to escape from her unfortunate reality. She didn’t choose her lifestyle; it was forced upon her.

Ruth is essentially treated as an object and not a human being throughout this entire film. When she finds out she’s pregnant while in prison, the judge handling her case suggests she have an abortion to avoid being imprisoned. Then when she’s “rescued” by a group of Pro-Lifers, they do everything they can to make sure she goes through with her pregnancy. She’s then “rescued” from the pro-lifers by the Pro-Choicers, and they do everything to persuade her to have an abortion. The pro-lifers and the Pro-Choicers go as far as to persuade her with money to either keep or get rid of her child. Both groups use her to support their cause, and it was so hard to watch this happen. How is Ruth supposed to better herself when everyone around her is trying to use and control her? Ruth lives in a world that has failed her, and I think that’s why I feel so much sympathy for her.

Brandon, how did you feel about Ruth’s choice in the end of the film, when she jacks the money from the Pro-Choice group and escapes the rally? Was this a sign that she was in control of herself or was this just Ruth being a bad person?

Brandon: As with all joys in this film, that final triumph feels like a mixed bag at best. I experienced a certain pride in that moment, watching Ruth take control of her own life for the first time in the entire film (except for, arguably, the occasions when she huffs spray paint & household chemicals for a cheap high). There’s a general sense that she’s sticking it to the man, getting what’s hers, finally having her day, etc. It’s a very bittersweet victory, though. Ruth is making off like a bandit, but her loot is a measly $15,000. It’s certainly more than the nothing Ruth starts the film with, but she believes it’s an astronomical amount, when it’s not likely to keep her afloat for a full year. It’s especially not enough to invest in real estate, as the self-help cassette she steals inspires her to (if she can ever get her grubby claws on Side 3). Also, consider for a second who exactly she’s stealing the money from in that moment. She’s not ripping off the horrifically self-righteous Pro-Lifers or their equally slimy hippie-dippie counterparts. She’s stealing from the biker, who, in my mind, was the only character in the entire film who ever offered Ruth freedom of choice in the first place (his $15,000 bribe was only meant to diffuse the financial pressure raised by the opposing, Pro-Life side of the argument so that money was not a factor in her choice).

Ruth isn’t really making any grand political statements or personal strides toward autonomy & self-actualization in her midday marauding. She begins & ends the film an addict with a one track mind. There’s a glorious catharsis in her final stride when she openly gets away with her heist of the century because everyone’s so wrapped up in a hot button political issue that they forget to take notice of the human being at the center of it. However, it’s also a bit of a last second gut punch as you realize Ruth’s most likely returning to the world where we found her at the beginning of the film. I’m not sure how much spray paint & patio sealant you can huff for $15,000, but I’m willing to bet it will land her in a coffin.

That balance between emotional devastation and (pitch black) comedy is a major part of what struck me about Citizen Ruth (besides Laura Dern’s career-consistent brilliance, obviously). Ruth’s not a “bad” person, necessarily. She’s just been turned into something of a feral animal by her addiction, making her play onscreen like a hyper-realistic version of Jerri Blank (who is a bad person, I should add) in her more amusing moments. Since I first saw Election writer/director Alexander Payne has always struck me as an outright sadist in his humor, but this movie goes for a very uncomfortable mix of tragedy & comedy that’s extreme even for him. He’s working on some fucked up Todd Solondz vibes here. Watching the first ten minutes or so of Citizen Ruth it’s near impossible to imagine that something so bleak would gradually be reshaped into a comedic mold, but the film pulls off that balance beautifully (and quite cruelly). You can feel it in Ruth’s “triumphant” stroll at the climax. You can feel it when she punches a child in the gut for snitching on her drug abuse. You can even feel it in her drug of choice, which is somehow more pathetic than alcoholism or needle drugs. Payne is a sick bastard for making us smile through the pain here, but he also never makes the protagonist’s horrific circumstances feel unrealistic. There’s genuine pain on display in this film  even when it’s softened with nervous laughter. Nothing ever feels easy or trivialized, which is impressive to say the least.

What do you think of Citizen Ruth‘s tonal clash between character-based humor & emotional terror, Alli? Did you expect that genre play even before the film took you there or did it catch you off-guard?

Alli: I think from the first scene of her having emotionless and unsatisfying sex while the song “When Somebody Loves you” is the soundtrack, I kind of expected there to be a clash of deep sadness and dark ironic humor. I found the scenes like this one, and also the one where she’s crying into a drain, praying to God, to be sort of the real life kind of funny. You know, the kind of funny where you’re having the worst day but if you don’t laugh what can you do? Not necessarily satisfying but still something to laugh at. I don’t think I expected the genuinely funny, satisfying moments at first, and what I really didn’t expect is how sort of bizarrely surreal the humor was going to get. I think some of those surreal moments even kind of treaded into John Waters territory, or at least for me.

For instance, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is after she’s just been “rescued” by this Pro-Choice couple the Pro-Life crowd comes to demand Ruth back. And they go out to look at the moon, and they start singing to the “moon mother” in unison, and have that three way hug with Laura Dern’s head comically smashed in the middle. It just feels like the exact kind of irreverent over the top situation that John Waters would construct.  Just the idea of a part rescue part kidnap by a fanatical group brings to mind Cecil B Demented, which was released in 2000, four years later, so maybe it was an influence on that. There’s also the clash between the perfect suburban family and the reject weirdo class, which is a huge theme in a lot of John Waters’ films. You have the naive Gail saying things like, “We’re all sinners but that doesn’t mean you can go around smelling drugs!” contrasted with one of my favorite Ruth lines in the movie, “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!” I would have a hard time believing that he didn’t write this movie if it weren’t for the dark, emotional terror.

There’s also this very Eraserhead moment, where Ruth is just a fish out of water at their dinner table, and there’s these tiny chickens that they’re all eating. And the only thing I could think was, “You just cut them up like regular chickens.” The fact that Laura Dern was in two David Lynch movies before this makes me feel like that was no accident.

What do you think, Boomer? Does this movies humor stand on its own? Or do you think it wears it’s influences a little too on its sleeves?

Boomer:It’s important to bear in mind that this was Alexander Payne’s first film. As a writer (like all of us here), we all start out on our journeys as scribes by paying deference to the creators who inspired us, merging our own voices with those of the giants on whose shoulders we stand. For me personally, I think that Citizen Ruth stands out as truly original in its voice in spite of any inspiration Payne may have taken from other sources, with a clear through line that makes the poetic statement that we are all products of the lives that we are brought into without permission.

On a bit of an existential note, none of us have any agency in our creation. We’re all born without a choice, which is reflected in the way that baby Tanya is no more than a MacGuffin onto which various parties project their personal moral concepts and failings. Ruth, likewise, was born into a world in which she was treated as a sexual object long before she had the emotional capacity to make decisions about consent. Everything about her life that followed was the result of her mother’s unnamed boyfriend using her, just as both factions of the abortion debate use her. Even when she is presented with the illusion of agency when she is taken to a clinic where she demands an abortion and is instead forced to watch propaganda, she’s trapped in a world that doesn’t care about her needs or desires as anything other than a means to a political end wrapped in a fiction about morality. On the face of it, this is a narrative about women and the agency they deserve in regards to their bodies, but on a higher level it’s about how all of our lives are circumscribed by an indifferent society and the personal agendas of people we should be able to trust.

I often find myself thinking about Tanya. What would her life have been like? Even with $15K, it’s not as if Ruth is all that likely to escape the cycle in which society and her own vices have trapped her; would Tanya have escaped that cycle, or would she, too, have been caught in it? Although I would never want to see Citizen Tanya (and Ruth’s miscarriage means that this sequel could never happen), I am curious about who she would have become, whether her life would have been better than her mother’s or not. Would she know about her prenatal past as a talking point for myopic worshipers of God and the moon? What hypothetical future do you see for Tanya, Britnee?

Britnee: It’s interesting how I didn’t really think much about Tanya even though she was so prominent in the film. If Tanya was born and raised by Ruth, her upbringing would have been terrible. Ruth would’ve bought a warehouse packed with patio sealant with that $15K, so that money would not go towards Tanya in any way. Ruth’s brother would definitely not take in another one of Ruth’s children, so Tanya would most likely end up in foster care. Now, foster homes could be the best thing to happen to a child in Tanya’s situation. There are loving families out there that want nothing more than to give children the best life possible, but there are some foster homes that are nothing short of a horror story. There is a chance that Tanya could grow up to be a completed success, even an advocate for children growing up in situations similar to her own. There’s also a chance that she would grow up to huff just as much patio sealant as Ruth and be just as self-destructive. I’ve been trying to think a little more positive lately, so I’m going to say that Tanya would grow up to be a phenomenal social worker that would eventually write a book about her fame as Baby Tanya (with a Danielle Steel-style photograph on the back cover). The book, which would be titled Whatever Happened to Baby Tanya?, would become one of those fantastically terrible made-for-TV Lifetime films. Of course, this is all just wishful thinking.

Something that I’ve been wanting to mention is the choice of casting Laura Dern as Ruth. Dern was in her late twenties when she portrayed the role of Ruth, and I find it interesting that they didn’t choose someone in their early twenties or late teens. Also, at the point of the release of Citizen Ruth, Dern was best known as Dr. Sattler from Jurrasic Park, and it must’ve been so strange for viewers to see Dern in such a different role. The whole thing just didn’t feel right.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Dern as Ruth? Would another actress have fit into this role a little better? If so, who would it be?

Brandon: I think I spilled the beans a little prematurely on who I’d love to see in the role of Ruth, were it to be recast. Although logic would tell you to go younger & more reserved, I’d love to see the film go hard in the exact opposite direction and cast Amy Sedaris in the lead role, preferably decked out in her Jerri Blank gear. Citizen Ruth predates Strangers With Candy by just a few years and, to me, boasts an unlikely kinship with the cult comedy series in the ways it finds pitch black humor in the base, animalistic behavior of its hopeless addict antiheroes. If there’s enough room in this world for a second Strangers With Candy movie (and I pray we can all agree there is), one that follows Citizen Ruth‘s exact storyline would be a perfect backdrop for Jerri Blank’s particular brand of finding humor in selfish, subhuman cruelty. There would be plenty of room for Sedaris to go over the top with the role without having to alter a single beat of the story’s current state.

That being said, I wouldn’t change one note of the performance Dern delivers here. Whether she’s a blind horse enthusiast or elbow deep in triceratops droppings, I’ve always found Laura Dern to be a magnetic presence onscreen. Citizen Ruth offers a rare treat in its casting of Dern in a lead role, one she tackles fearlessly as a lovably self-absorbed, violently naïve monster. A lot of actresses at that point in their career would’ve injected too much vanity or empathy into this kind of role, but Dern is content to leave her be as an doomed, ugly soul. I would love to see the Amy Sedaris take on the part, but that mental exercise is transforming the movie into something it’s not, pushing it further into the John Waters territory Alli mentioned earlier. I found Dern’s screen presence to be perfectly suited for the task at hand, as subtly uncomfortable & amusing as that task was.

What’s your biggest takeaway from Dern’s performance as Ruth, Alli? How does this role fit into her career at large?

Alli: I personally really enjoyed Laura Dern in this role, and I actually got really excited when I found out she was the lead in the movie before I even started watching it. I don’t know why, even though I’ve only seen a handful of the movies she’s been in, but I’m sold on something if she’s involved. I knew her as a kid from Jurassic Park and that role is definitely iconic. But recently I just watched Wild At Heart and loved her in that. I really like the way she handles these complex characters in difficult situations. In Wild at Heart, she still plays sort of the naïve youngster, but in a much more positive way than in Citizen Ruth. Both characters make their fair share of bad decisions though. She plays the lovable scamp really well. She manages to bring this almost nervous yet comical in it’s own right energy to these roles. Her acting is pretty charming at the loss of a better description.

I guess given the movies I’ve seen her in I think of her in kind of the Chloë Sevigny category, “the actresses who rock these small, strange movies but can just as easily slide into bigger roles.” She also seems to take sort of daring roles, be it the smart scientist of Jurassic Park (“Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.”) or a drug addict Ruth seeking an abortion.

Also, superficially, she has one of my favorite interesting faces, so I like that about her as well.

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Lagniappe

Britnee: I didn’t mention this during the conversation, but I thought it was so creepy how Gail Stoney was totally planning on stealing Baby Tanya. There were a few hints in the film that led me to believe that her son’s real mother was a woman in a position similar to Ruth. What a creep!

Brandon: My favorite tonal shift in this film is when it first reshapes itself from a heartbreaking drama into a subtly comedic character study. After Ruth hits rock bottom (literally) and is rescued from her cold jail cell floor, she’s whisked away to the tackiest version of suburbia you’re likely to see outside a Tim Burton film. There’s so many subtly humorous/nightmarish details to focus on in this sequence — the goth teen temper tantrums, the Kafkaesque trip to the anti-abortion clinic, the rabid feminists trying to break their way into the house through the dining room windows, etc. What really cracked me up/kept me up at night, though, were the depictions of suburban food. What words could you even use to describe those images? Horrific blandness? Nightmarish crimes against good taste? Culinary abortions? The film’s intense focus on the horrors of suburban cuisine were both a great snapshot of the aggressively mild nature of the Pro-Lifers who prepared it & the delicately monstrous humor Alex Payne constructs in his debut feature as a whole. There’s a lot of powerful imagery in these kinds of details that you wouldn’t normally experience in a comedy, no matter how dark or political.

Boomer: I’ll second Brandon’s note that the suburban nightmare was a favorite element of mine, although the thing that stood out to me more than the food was the loud airplane flyover that occurs when the family is having their meal outdoors. It perfectly encapsulates a paradoxical sense of both “nowhereness” and “everywhereness” that permeates the film’s mood. It expresses the lack of urbanity, or more accurately the utter suburbanity, of the Stoney lifestyle, and is perhaps the most artful sound choice in the film.

Alli: I didn’t mention this before, because I thought it would have been weird and off topic, but I really feel like this is a movie just asking to be adapted to a musical. I know it would push it more into the goofball comedy spectrum, but I’d really like for there to be a musical number with the staff of a pregnancy crisis center feeding the audience increasingly outrageous fake information. I’d pay money to watch that and a bunch of stereotypically dressed third wave feminists serenading the moon goddess.

Upcoming Movies of the Month:
August:
Alli presents Black Moon (1975)
September: Brandon presents The Box (2009)
October: Britnee presents The Funhouse (1981)

-The Swampflix Crew