Film of the Week: White Reindeer
At this time of year, nothing warms the cockles of a cynic’s heart like a properly sour Christmas movie. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough of these to keep us contented, and till now we’ve pretty much had to make do with Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy, Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, and of course Gremlins, featuring Phoebe Cates’s peerlessly black monologue about why Dad never came home that December. But here’s a fresh treat for Yuletide skeptics: the bracingly deadpan White Reindeer.
Zach Clark’s gently misanthropic comedy is not to be confused with the 1952 Finnish film The White Reindeer, much admired by scholars of Nordic cinema, in which, apparently, the titular beast is vampiric rather than red-nosed. The new White Reindeer is not from Finland, yet it does revel in a somewhat Finnish lugubriousness: this is one of the few Christmas films that you can imagine Aki Kaurismäki approving of.
The reindeer of Clark’s title, though the meaning is never spelled out, seem to be the animals depicted on the bulky sweaters that overeager suburbanites and TV anchorpeople tend to start wearing in mid-November, whether to cheer up others or to stave off their own feelings of winter desperation. In Clark’s film, these beasts are emblems of phoniness and emotional ineptitude. White Reindeer opens with just such an image of social fakery: preparing to show clients round a bland suburban property, estate agent Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) slaps on a recording of Christmas songs by way of readymade spray-on cheer. We start 24 days before Christmas (the countdown continues throughout) with Suzanne and her TV weatherman husband Jeff (Nathan Williams) celebrating their imminent move to Hawaii with an upright fuck in their kitchen—at which point carols played tiki bar-style become the film’s kitsch leitmotif.
But the merriment soon ends: next thing we know, Suzanne comes home to find Jeff bloodily murdered by intruders. At this point, with her life overwhelmed by grief, horror, and disappointment, the film becomes a spirited Festival of Inappropriateness. The detective investigating the crime glumly offers Suzanne a candy cane. A TV report on Jeff’s killers is emblazoned with the headline “Real Life Grinches.” At the funeral drinks, local news anchorwoman Greta (Kim Park, with mesmerizingly odd delivery) makes her entrance with a jaw-dropping display of narcissism. And Jeff’s colleague Tom (Mark Boyett) takes Suzanne into her bathroom to tearfully disclose that her husband was having an affair with a stripper named Autumn.
As the countdown progresses, Suzanne is caught between grieving and attempting to numb her emotions with a simulation of festive cheer—obsessively buying Christmas trimmings to fill her ever bleaker house, and looking to a particular red cashmere dress to boost her sense of self-worth and sexuality. Seeking some kind of connection, or just out for entertainment wherever she can find it, Suzanne invites herself to the housewarming of her ever-so-nice new clients Patti and George (Lydia Hyslop and the ubiquitous Joe Swanberg)—the kind of swingers who literally install a swing in the living room. The party sequence hits the default buttons we associate with the satire of middle-class orgying: tubby men in jockstraps solemnly cradling their drinks, naked couples in the kitchen chatting about their kids, the squeaky-clean hostess handing out canapés before donning her strap-on. The whole thing ends with a naked game of Rock Star, before Suzanne, who’s had a creditable stab at getting into the party spirit, makes her excuses and leaves.
Suzanne unexpectedly finds better company when she contacts her husband’s ex-lover (“Autumn’s my stripper name. My real name’s Fantasia”). They end up getting on famously, but their unlikely bonding is played neither for embarrassment nor pathos; the world of Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) just turns out to be an oasis of no-bullshit realism. Suzanne accompanies her new friend and her co-workers to a rock club where she takes to cocaine and thunderous basslines with liberating abandon—then joins them on a shoplifting spree at Macy’s, where Fantasia has a day job in the perfumery department (heaven forbid that White Reindeer should give anyone ideas, but tinfoil is apparently a vital accessory for the casual criminal).
On top of this, there’s a nice, trenchant sequence in which a cozy reading of “The Night Before Christmas” is counterpointed by a montage of illuminated decorations in drab civic settings; and by the film’s end, we get a piquant catharsis of sorts, through a closing twist on the virgin-birth story.
I hadn’t come across writer-director Zach Clark before—his Modern Love Is Automatic (09) and Vacation! (10) have many admirers—but what White Reindeer lacks in outright originality, it gains in mischief and tight construction. As well as being his own editor, Clark is also a confident director of comic acting, specializing in touches of oddball delivery that perfectly catch characters’ pitch of embarrassment or gracelessness. Cutting her own swath through the dominant pall of suburban blandness, Lemar-Goldsborough is unflappably no-nonsense as Fantasia. And Hollyman is a real find, bringing a quiet but precarious sanity into the idiotic world that surrounds Suzanne. She’s like a demure, startled Greta Scacchi just about to topple out of control.
Likeably modest, White Reindeer is no-frills sitcom stuff, but its tartness can make you squirm deliciously. It’s very astute about the chimera of Joy Unbounded that we’re conditioned to chase every December, and even better on the depressing conjunction of commerciality, sex, and the suburbs—best captured in a scene where Fantasia pole-dances, while a middle-aged punter asks her, “Have you done all your Christmas shopping yet?” There’s not much competition, admittedly, but White Reindeer wins 2013’s “Bah, Humbug!” Bleak Christmas Award hands down.