Arguably the single most farfetched element in the Kennedy-assassination lone-gunman myth — harder to buy, perhaps, than even the magic-bullet theory — is the notion that Jack Ruby, the Dallas strip-club owner who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald on national television, was an outraged patriot who committed his audacious act out of love for his President. The daring of Ruby, an engrossing and surprisingly intimate speculative account of Ruby’s life in the months leading up to the JFK assassination, is that even as the movie rejects this simpleminded notion, it provides Ruby with a motivation that is even more personally and emotionally charged.
The movie begins in 1962. Ruby (Danny Aiello), who once worked for the Mafia big boys in Chicago, has spent 15 years in Dallas struggling to make a go of his dank little burlesque house; it’s as if he’d been demoted to the mob’s minor leagues. He still has underworld connections, only they’re way too tenuous to carry much loyalty. Instead, he has cut a deal with the FBI, which is paying him to make secret tapes of mob dealings. Aiello, in a marvelous performance, catches the sweaty, scuzzball nihilism of an underworld odd man out — a Jew in a world of Italians, a middle- aged gangster-schlemiel poised on the knife edge between small-time sleaze and big-time conspiracy.
Made by a team of Britishers — screenwriter Stephen Davis, who adapted his stage play Love Field, and director John Mackenzie, who’s best known here for the combustible 1982 gangster movie The Long Good Friday — Ruby unveils a plot to kill JFK that is nearly as complex as Oliver Stone’s. This time, though, we’re spared the dizzying paranoid metaphysics, the sense that every government agency in the country was in on things. Ruby is drawn, almost by chance, into a Mafia plan to assassinate Castro. Then JFK is killed — by what is presented as a coalition of the mob and a CIA that feels its very existence threatened by Kennedy.
The movie brings us close to the center of the conspiracy. David Ferrie, the eyebrowless creep played by Joe Pesci in JFK, shows up here, too, only this time he’s portrayed (by Tobin Bell) as an insidiously confident, Southern-fried smoothy; leering and carrot-topped, he’s like the devil’s messenger. Even as Ruby makes us privy to sinister machinations, the movie filters these events through Ruby’s anxious, half comprehending view from the outer circle. Why does Ruby shoot Oswald? As a way, he thinks, of bringing the truth to light. He knows the Kennedy assassination is a great sin, but it’s also that he’s been wronged, jerked around by the mob he gave his life to.
The film strains, at times, to portray Ruby as just a good paternal fella. His (fictionalized) platonic relationship with a vivacious stripper named Candy Cane (Sherilyn Fenn), who ends up sleeping with the President, is a little too sentimental to swallow. Fenn, though, is witty and touching; she outvamps Madonna simply by not trying too hard. And the movie makes us understand how a man like Ruby, who has spent his life amid slime, would want to cleanse himself by saving this fresh, trusting girl. Whatever its limitations, Ruby is a rich and searching work, with an early-’60s seediness that is sometimes stagebound, sometimes eerily atmospheric. By the end, we feel we’ve come one step closer to these events. The movie takes characters who may have been linked to the Kennedy assassination and brings them down to earth, making them look nakedly, desperately human.