Joseph Ruben | Return to Paradise
| The Forgotten
Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors)
Joseph Ruben is a director, mainly of thrillers and science fiction.
Return to Paradise
Links to True Believer: Idealistic Drama
Return to Paradise (1998) is the second-most recent feature
directed by Joseph Ruben. Among his previous work, it most resembles
his True Believer (1989). Both of these stories involved
burned-out men trying to gain a new idealism, to bring some meaning
into their lives, and take action that will help some other person.
Both stories are courtroom dramas, at least in part; both have
a lawyer among their central characters, as well as a judge, and
some scenes in prison. Both take place among a somewhat blighted,
run down cityscape, depicted with rich atmospheric intensity.
Both stories have a considerable degree of direct social criticism.
(All of Ruben's movies have a liberal point of view, but in some,
such as The Stepfather (1987) and Sleeping with the
Enemy (1991), the criticism is directed at the patriarchal
family, and less on society at large.) There is a special concern
with the poor, the dispossessed, and those spending their lives
in prison. Both films have a good deal of male bonding.
These two films of Ruben's can mainly be classified as dramas, with
well developed characterizations, and moral issues that are carefully
thought over by the characters, without a superficial judgment.
They have considerable suspense, but go very lightly on what is
now called "action". The screenplays tend to be well
plotted. The emphasis on good drama mixed with suspense can make
these films seem "old-fashioned", in the best sense
of the term - the cliché is that "they don't make
movies like they used to", but Ruben does. However, Ruben's
interest in contemporary society makes his films seem extremely
up to date - their milieu is that of the very modern world.
Links to Chekhov
In Sleeping with the Enemy, Julia Roberts eventually meets
a nice young theater director in Iowa. The play he is putting
on is Anton Chekhov's The Sea Gull (1896).
It is not identified by name in the film, but its opening lines are performed.
Ruben's picture of modern middle class America, in all his films,
has much in common with Chekhov's Czarist Russia. Both are full,
in their authors' point of view, with middle class people who have
given up, and who are wasting their talents by inaction. These
people need to find some sort of idealism and conscience, and
need to start doing practical things to help all the suffering
people around them.
Figures and Background
Ruben's visual style is excellent. Most of the shots are very
The typical shot in Return to Paradise displays one of
the figures in a moderate long shot. The figure is shown from
head to toe, and nearly fills the top to bottom of the frame.
Behind the figure is either a room, or a cityscape. The background
image is clearly focused. It is full of very revealing detail.
The shot is designed to clearly, logically lay out the contents
of a room, or a street, or a skyline. Ruben has staged the shot
so that its left and right boundaries exactly coincide with the
relevant boundaries of the location. In Ruben's film, both the
figure in the foreground, and the landscape revealed in the background,
have equal weight. Each is important, and neither dominates over
the other. We watch the emotions of the character being revealed
by the performer's acting. We also watch the environment in which
they find themselves, and which is part of the drama. The two
often comment on each other; a character's room reveals their
personality, their social status, and their attitudes, for instance.
However, the foreground actor and the background are often fairly
independent of each other, offering two parallel "tracks"
The audience does not "know" the characters in Ruben's
film right away. We watch through the entire picture, for clues
to their personalities, which gradually emerge over the course
of the film. In fact, the biggest mystery in the story is what
the characters are like deep inside. So the audience is always
in a watchful, receptive and analytic mood, trying to receive
and process information it is receiving from the screen. The constantly
new backgrounds are part of this experience, just as much as the
dialogue and the acting of the characters in the foreground.
The shot is not only informative; it is also beautiful from a
compositional standpoint. Ruben's compositions tend to be orderly,
rather than wildly baroque, in the manner, say, of Orson Welles.
They are often full of strong vertical lines formed by the windows
of his interiors.
The word that most leaps to mind in discussing Ruben's images
is interesting. They consistently interest the mind and
the eye throughout one of his films. Consequently, his films are
rarely boring; they are far more consistently absorbing to watch
than those of many other contemporary directors. They tend to
be a satisfying experience.
Realism - and the Tropics
One by-product of Ruben's careful marshaling of detail: an increase
of realism. For example, the scenes under the coconut palms in
Asia show the ground. The ground is a mixture of bare earth, and
the sort of fallen plant material known to botanists as "leaf
litter". This is exactly the experience of walking through
a tropical or semi-tropical area. Ruben captures this with a sort
of vivid, "you are there" quality. This is the only
fiction film I have ever seen which does do that: all the other
fiction films I can recall which are set in tropical areas seem
much less realistic. They are full of what seems to be a vague,
sketchy indication of the tropics; Ruben's shows the real thing.
Wide Screen: Cityscapes and Rooms
Ruben's compositions are carefully designed to take advantage of
the widescreen format in which the film is shot.
In Godard's Contempt (1963), Fritz Lang
says that Cinemascope is only good for funerals and snakes. That
famous quote is not the whole story: widescreen ratios are also
very good for presenting cityscapes. The same goes for rooms,
which tend to be much wider than they are tall, at least in Ruben's
apartments and restaurants. Virtually every shot in Return
to Paradise shows in detail some background important in the
Ruben does not tend to use a lot of camera movement. When he needs
to move away from one of his carefully planned compositions, he
cuts to another well made composition. There is little pretense
in his films that the camera has found this position "by
accident". The point of view is clearly much better, more
revealing and more pleasing to the eye, than a randomly focused
camera aimed at reality would be. The pretense, used by Jean Renoir
and his pupils, that the camera is just off handedly gazing at
reality, is not for Ruben. Of course, Renoir's films are full
of the most exquisite planning. Ruben's point of view is that
of a sort of public servant of the audience. His job, he is implying,
is to put the camera into the most logical, most informative position
possible, and then compose everything with the maximum visual
Links to Ruben Films
The Forgotten (2004) is Joseph Ruben's first feature in
six years. It has a number of similarities with his earlier work.
It is a science fiction film, like Dreamscape (1984). In
both films, the science fiction centers on the inner imaginative
life of the protagonist, and its effect or contrast with the real
world outside of the hero: in Dreamscape, the hero's dreams
affect reality, in The Forgotten, the heroine's inner beliefs
about the existence of her son contradict the "official"
reality around her. In both films, the hero soon goes up against
The attempt by the heroine's husband at the start of The Forgotten
to make her forget her son, recall a bit the controlling husband
in Sleeping with the Enemy. But only to a degree. In some
ways, the husband here has a point: mourning cannot go on to the
extent of total withdrawal from life.
The paranoia that engulfs the heroine recalls both True Believer and
Sleeping with the Enemy.
Actors: Links to Other Films
Ruben is an actor-centered director, who has always been interested
in encouraging strong performances in his films. The Forgotten
is blessed with a cast whose most famous work has been in art
films, not popular horror film material:
Consequently, The Forgotten has a cast that
oozes intelligence from every pore. There is also a sense of strange
comedy, in that The Forgotten is a reprisal of many of
the most celebrated art house successes of a slightly earlier
era. It seems deliberately to echo these 90's films.
- Julianne Moore seems to be reprising her role from [safe] (Todd Haynes),
as a housewife slowly going mad from the pressures of a nightmarishly
conformist suburban existence.
- Police officer Alfre Woodward has wandered in from a John Sayles drama.
- Psychiatrist Gary Sinise thinks he is back on stage with John Malkovich in their old theater
- And Linus Roache still seems to be playing the sinister,
self-righteous lead in Priest, a man more concerned with
following his profession's rules than about the human beings it
Anthony Edwards, although a talented character actor in a league with the others,
is a bit miscast here. His husband character seems like a direct
reprise of the numbingly bourgeois husband in [safe], a
role that Edwards did not play. Maybe Edwards is here because
[safe] actor Xander Berkeley was not available! While Edwards
does a good job, he is not well cast as an unfeeling conformist
- warmth and individuality being his strong positive traits as an actor.
The sense that The Forgotten is reprising and
incorporating other films in its mix gives the whole enterprise
a very strange feel.
A Mix of Genres: Science Fiction and Thriller
The Forgotten further complicates audience response by
being a bizarre mix of genres. The Forgotten is marketed
as a horror film, and certainly has some elements of the genre.
It looks really, really dark, with sets that are lit by a single
lamp, spooky shadows, and occasional shock effects. However, the
gore of many modern horror films is completely absent here, as
are the sick killings.
Instead, much of the film is a Hitchcock
style thriller, a genre in which Ruben has often previously worked.
Horror is further undercut by having the film turn out to be science
fictional in its underpinnings. This is all to the good, as far
as I am concerned: both science fiction and suspense thrillers
are far more to my taste than gory horror. The film has elements
that recall the non-science fictional thriller The Net
(Irwin Winkler, 1995), with the heroine on the run, erased identities,
and general paranoia. And hovering over the whole project is the
prose science fiction of Philip K. Dick, with its scenes in which
reality breaks down, and the final explanation of events somewhat
in the tradition of such Dick novels as Time Out of Joint
New York City near the Brooklyn Bridge
Much of The Forgotten seems to be set in regions of New
York City near the Brooklyn Bridge. This was also the locale of
part of Return to Paradise. It now seems like a personal
locale for Ruben, just as Monument Valley was for John Ford.
High Camera Angles - and Camera Movement
Ruben shoots much the action from above, from very high angles.
Some of this seems to be using a crane, other parts a helicopter.
There is perhaps some CGI here, too. Ruben gets some remarkable
effects from moving camera overhead shots. How did he get the
scene of the heroine running down an alley, for example?