' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Ruby in Paradise (1993)

Friday, February 26, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Ruby in Paradise (1993)

Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise (1993), bearer of Ashley Judd’s greatest performance, long unavailable outside a sketchy YouTube upload and other suboptimal means, has been re-released by Quiver Distribution, bless their souls, in high definition master to rent or to buy through various digital platforms and virtual cinemas. This is truly wonderful news. Perhaps Criterion could be next? In its honor, here is our 4-year old review of it, a Friday’s Old Fashioned second round. Then go watch it. 

“Ruby in Paradise” opens with Ruby Lee Gessing (Ashley Judd) fleeing her abusive partner in Tennessee by driving south, disappearing into the darkness as she does, before re-emerging in the light of Florida’s panhandle where she seeks to change her life. Life changes at the cinema often come about because of Big or Unplanned Events pulsing with readymade drama, and some movies do fine jobs of illustrating such transformations. But life just as often changes without capital letters, taking place quietly, by accumulating experiences and then allowing time for those experiences to be considered and put into context. Victor Nunez renders such a subtle transformation in “Ruby in Paradise” by simply observing Ruby as she spruces up her dingy living quarters, performs the menial tasks required at the tourist shop where she works, meets new people, learns from each of these seemingly underwhelming events, lessons she writes downs. Those lessons, befitting the cheap spiral notebook in which she pens them, are more functional than grandiose. 

Ruby comes to Florida because the lone good memory she clings to is a family vacation there, a fanciful notion that “Ruby in Paradise”, with its grimy yet hopeful air, both laughs at and embraces. Nunez gives her moments to stand on the beach, feet in the water, shimmering in the sunset, but he also counteracts these moments with all manner of mundane strip malls not far from the sand, and the shop where Ruby works, which, save for some tropical trinkets, could be anywhere. And that Ruby arrives in the off season, while a means to give her a little extra soul-searching time, illustrates a Florida away from the lull of tourism, where everyday locals work low wage jobs, an economic reality that comes through even clearer when Ruby briefly loses her position at the souvenir shop and finds work in an industrial laundry. During the latter, Ruby goes through the grueling motions, fighting to stay present, which her co-workers, seen laughing both on the job and off it, stress as being of the utmost importance, suggesting a life of such labor can drain all the life from you, a frightening proposition that “Ruby in Paradise” suggests might be the worst fate of all.

It’s also telling that at this job, like her job at the tourist shop, Ruby is principally surrounded by women. This is not just a movie told from an economically poor vantage point, but the from a woman’s point-of-view too. Sure, Ruby finds herself in the company of men too, like the shop owner’s son, a semi-smooth talking lout, a broad performance by Bentley Mitchum that is the movie’s primary weak point. Even so, it makes sense that Ruby would go down that road, reverting to previous behavior, like it’s been ingrained all her life, and ultimately reminding her she came here to break free. Her relationship with Mike (Todd Field) is more pleasant, because he at least treats her well and introduces her to new things, though cracks emerge there too, as he proves to be a pessimist by nature about nature, who loves the land but can only see the bad being done. Even more, though, his ideas of a relationship skew conservative, which is what eventually turns Ruby away, when he tells her “I’ll take care good of you” and she replies “Every girl’s dream” with the sort of voice that lets you know it damn sure isn’t.

In a movie where so little happens, in a traditional sense, where the journey is one principally taking place inwardly, the lead actress becomes paramount in propping up the production, and Judd, in her first feature film role, is up to the task. Consider a downturn for Ruby, stuck between jobs, when Nunez presents her with a momentary ray of light in the form of a piece of pie brought over by a neighbor. In the moment that Ruby eats her dessert for dinner, Judd does not overplay, refraining from some exaggerated “mmmmm” or some such, knowing the emotion is construed via the scene’s context and that all she needs to do is exist within it. With many of her character’s thoughts relayed in voiceover, Judd gives them not the ring of cemented truth but food for thought. And though Ruby assumes a determined air in applying for her first job, most elsewhere Judd is content to let her listen, and let you see her listening, and then sizing up what was said and deciding for herself. Movies so often insistently impress change upon their characters with external events whereas Judd pulls the niftiest actor trick of all – she lets you see how the change comes from within.

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