Citizen Ruth is most impressive in how unlikable it's able to make all of its characters. Ruth herself gets further and further away from sympathy. An early scene of her stopping by her brother's to ostensibly see her kids is revealed to be a craven attempt at a hand-out, providing one of my favorite acting threads of a good actor (Dern) playing a character (Ruth) who is a bad actor (Ruth being contrite). There's a glimmer of sympathy when the arresting cops make off-handed remarks about getting Ruth spayed, but by the fourth or fifth time she's dissolved into a seizing mess with spray paint on her face, or reacted like a 4-year-old who's had her favorite toy taken away, there's nothing left. As every other character is taking a political stance that seemingly defines their lives, they're stridently humorless to a man and woman, which in turn makes them figures of fun. Since there's no one to root for (if the viewer is able to leave their own personal abortion opinion at the door, of course), the appeal of watching Citizen Ruth then comes less from empathy, which doesn't play a role here, and more from seeing how Payne can flip expected scenes and situations on their head. As a debut for Payne, it's a daring strategy that, based on how invested I was in what happens next, is largely successful.
The political battle therein is always played for laughs, as the stakes become which of these caricatures gets to claim victory. Payne isn't really trying too hard here, and is simply portraying each side as what the other side thinks of them. The pro-lifers are sexually repressed hypocrites and fear-mongers. Norm Stoney treats the opportunity of having Ruth in his home as a chance to leer and be generally inappropriate toward a woman he would likely call a temptress and Jezebel behind her back. A crisis pregnancy center is a font of misinformative scare tactics, as putative health professionals show Ruth apocalyptic propaganda and try to get her to name her fetus. When the national big guns are called in, represented by Burt Reynolds, there's an unsubtle gay subtext, as Reynolds has a young male personal assistant from which he gets shirtless massages. The pro-choicers are, in turn, lesbian moon maidens, practicing Wicca and reflexology. Both sides are concerned with exact verbiage and messaging, and both treat this one woman's decision as life and death for their respective movements. The only character that feels like a novel creation is MC Gainey's Harlan, a Vietnam vet who works security for the abortion clinic. The only male voice on the pro-choice side, he takes the expected position of having fought for Americans' freedom, and the unexpected position of including abortion access as one of those freedoms. It's also simply fun to see hulking, gun-toting Harlan sip coffee with pro-choice stereotypes in girl-power t-shirts.
Payne isn't cutting too deep with his satire, but any film that holds attention as tightly as this one is doing something right. Even without all the tropes and types tied up in the abortion issue, the basic idea of having two distinctly opposite and equally passionate causes go to war over such an unreliable and unsympathetic person is inherently strong. 'Both sides are silly' isn't the most trenchant insight, but the real accomplishment here is the character of Ruth, an anti-hero for the history books. Resolutely awful even in the face of repeated opportunities for redemption, Payne hasn't written another main character like her to date, and perhaps for that reason, it's no surprise that Citizen Ruth is his least critically acclaimed film. He's created some indelible characters, and Ruth is certainly one of them. B