Ruby Sparks is a beautiful fantasy film directed by Little Miss Sunshine co-creators Johnathon Dayton and Valerie Faris. It centers on an author (Paul Dano), Calvin Weir-Fields, who finds himself wrapped in loneliness and isolation a decade after the release of his first novel. After a prolonged episode of writer’s block, he writes a scene about a woman meeting, and liking, his dog. The following night he has a cryptic dream about the woman. When he wakes up, she’s in his house. As events unfold, it becomes apparent that he has invented this woman, Ruby (Zoe Kazan), using his typewriter.
Ruby Sparks was generally received as a romance, or at times, a romantic-comedy by audiences and critics alike. It definitely had romantic elements like the glamorous shots of the couple gallivanting through sweaty concert crowds and arcades awash with pink-and-blue lighting that are irresistible, but the film is ultimately quite dark at its core. Whatever Calvin writes about Ruby becomes integral to her personality, behavior, or appearance. This starts off as a relatively benign “what if?,” but quickly devolves into a tool of coercion and control. The way the pair’s relationship, specifically Calvin’s behavior within a relationship, unfolds on screen is harrowing. The film captures the audience with a quite literally too-good-to-be-true relationship, before taking a turn into unexpected horrors.
At the start of the film, Calvin appears flawed, but ultimately you’re led to sympathize with his struggles. He’s depicted as struggling massively with fame and hype generated by his first novel, released when he was nineteen, and totally unable to form adult relationships and meaningful connections with people in this new phase of his life. However, instead of reflecting on these issues and developing as a person, the film charts his psychological downward spiral as he deflects his problems onto others and attempts to shape narratives within his life to fit his perspective – essentially rewriting his life however he sees fit.
On the first watch of the movie, it’s easy to miss the context cues that foreshadow Calvin’s toxic and abusive behaviors. But, on subsequent viewings, it’s impossible to miss the warning signs strewn throughout the story, and the film’s visuals. The honeymoon phase of the relationship is established clearly, before everything crumbles under the weight of Calvin’s controlling actions. Instead of allowing Ruby to exist as a whole, complex human being, he attempts to play God by writing more about her. At first, it appears to be innocuous – he writes to make her happy – but it quickly becomes clear that Calvin’s actions are rooted in a need to be in control and micromanage situations, without resolving them head-on. This makes the film into a perfect thriller of an unhealthy relationship, each twist more uncomfortable to witness than the last.
The cinematography in the film loops between idyllic shots of golden-hour romance with soft focus, and tension-filled, intentionally shaky shots of the couple. When Ruby first appears in Calvin’s house, the scene is shot like the depiction of a home invasion. Ruby startles Calvin by appearing at the top of the stairs, as we watch from afar at the end of the landing. Once Calvin affirms to himself that she is real, not a hallucination, and that she isn’t a home invader, the film cuts back to its honeyed hues and lighting. However, as the story progresses, the unsettlingly tremoring scenes and shots of figures lurking in doorways, staircases, and reflections are gradually reintroduced. This really pinpoints the way the dark undertones of the film sneak in under the viewers’ noses.
The film begins focusing on Calvin’s isolation, but the focus shifts onto Ruby’s isolation. The isolation in Ruby’s life is mostly caused by Calvin’s treatment of her. At first, he keeps her existence very close to his chest, and when he eventually introduces her to the wider world, he becomes very possessive and jealous. This shift in focus is evocative of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Shining focusses at first on the stability of novelist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), before shifting to look at the impact it has on his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and child, Danny (Danny Lloyd). This shift in focus, mirroring the way Calvin displaces his feelings onto other people, underlines the way the film leans into the horror genre perfectly.
The narrative structure of Ruby Sparks isn’t the only way the film evokes The Shining, either. Calvin types the majority of his work on a vintage typewriter. Throughout the film, the viewers are often shown close-ups of the typewriter, revealing what Calvin is making Ruby do next. This is reminiscent of the infamous shots from The Shining, wherein we witness Jack frenetically typing “No work all play makes Jack a dull boy”. It’s difficult to watch these scenes without being reminded of the nerve-wracking sequences they are echoing, setting the tone perfectly for the horrors yet to come.
Calvin’s home, a beautiful house located in Los Angeles, plays a significant role in creating the eerie atmosphere of the movie’s darkest moments. In a Q&A session, as reported by Los Angeles Magazine, the filmmakers referred to Calvin’s house as being an integral “character” of the film, as much so even as the co-stars. This is an idea used in horror relatively often, too. The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and 112 Ocean Avenue in The Amityville Horror are both as fundamental to the morbid events of each story as any given character across the movies. This is fully embraced by utilizing the building to enhance the sense of isolation and seclusion the leads experiences at various points throughout the story. Otherwise benevolent shots, such as depictions of Calvin looking out over L.A. from a floor-length, second story window in his house, elicit imagery from classic horror and thriller titles like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, forecasting spine-chilling events later in the plot.
There are other narrative devices used throughout the film that are borrowed from classic horror tropes, too. When Calvin is dictating Ruby’s actions through his typewriter, she loses all autonomy. Not only is the thought of losing that grip on oneself, or having the will to take that independence away from another person, completely chilling to begin with, it’s also reminiscent of the use of possession in horror. During the movie’s climax, Calvin reveals to Ruby that he has been able to puppeteer her for the entire course of their relationship, by forcing her to behave in a number of bizarre ways: crawling on all fours, maniacally singing, and removing her clothes, among other behaviors. This scene is agonizing to experience. It draws from films such as The Exorcist, depicting a total loss of control. However, in this case, Ruby isn’t being possessed by a ghost or a demon, but instead by Calvin’s need for control and dominance.
As with many excellent horror films, the story concludes with a debatably unhopeful cliffhanger. Calvin “releases” Ruby by writing a new passage encouraging her to leave the house, and the relationship, to become “freed from the past”. After this, he retires the typewriter from which Ruby was created, and moves on to write a new book. His life seems to continue without Ruby in the picture. Then, when walking his dog through a park, he runs into a woman who looks exactly like Ruby (also depicted by Zoe Kazan). It isn’t established to the audience if this woman is or is not Ruby, as she doesn’t recognize him, and her name is never disclosed. It seems the two go on to connect, and the film ends with them spending time together in the park.
On one hand, this could be interpreted as much needed character development on Calvin’s behalf, as he embarks on a redemption arc and receives a second chance. On the other hand, regardless of whether the woman is really Ruby or not, it’s difficult not to view the ending as the frightening potential for the cycle of abuse to continue. While Calvin doesn’t have the ability to control this woman with his typewriter, there’s nothing to say that he’s certainly overcome the underlying issues that led to his original mistreatment of Ruby, and that he wouldn’t end up finding new ways of exerting control over this person. And so, as new doors open, the horror has the chance to continue.