Review: 'White Reindeer'

The ubiquity of snark is a year-round phenomenon, but each December it arrives with renewed vigor — it’s as if the cheer entrained by the holiday season demanded in us all an upswell of reciprocal cynicism, a sigh and a rolling eye to ward off prefab feelings. What is it about Christmas in particular that educes such hostility and loathing? Is mordancy denominational? Certainly the holiday’s commercial dimension triggers a reflex of weary suspicion: even people who like buying resent being sold something, and doubly so when it’s packaged as an exponent of yuletide merriment. This seems reasonable enough — and indeed, between blitzkrieg ad campaigns and sales stampedes, that attitude can look rather appealing. But even derision has its limitations, and soon enough the knee-jerk mockery which greets the season’s garish festive kitsch begins to feel no less exhausting. It’s not enough to simply sneer your way through Christmas. You must contend with it.

Zach Clark, director of the new film “White Reindeer”, does quite a bit more than merely contend with Christmas — he embraces it, and fondly. Clark, shrugging off the protestations of his contemporaries, finds himself possessed of a deep affection for holiday tradition, and as a result “White Reindeer” is the first Christmas movie in years to regard the season as anything more than a pretense for satire and criticism. “There is a strangeness and sadness to Christmas that I think is very beautiful”, Clark told me in a recent interview, “but very few movies about Christmas approach that beauty.” Clark’s does — and with obvious enthusiasm. He perceives in the architecture and iconography of the holidays a quality which transcends the gaudy and the vulgar, and he furnishes his film with these elements in earnest. When Clark insists, as he did in our interview, that he wants people “to be in the Christmas spirit by the end of the film”, he really means it: this isn’t some gesture of ironic posturing, lampooning the holidays by only pretending to admire them. Its passion is sincere. “White Reindeer” concedes that much about Christmas is funny — its notions quaint, its fixtures cliched. But it proposes that beneath this sometimes lurid veneer lay something to cherish all the same.

Clark’s previous film, “Modern Love is Automatic”, concerned a young nurse who begins moonlighting as a dominatrix, and, as its theatrical poster suggests, “White Reindeer” likewise veers toward the indecent and profane. Little suggests as much initially. From the outset Clark seems to be constructing a classical yuletide tragedy: Suzanne Barrington (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a happily married real estate agent in the suburbs, returns home from the mall and tree lot one evening to find her husband, a beloved local news anchor, sprawled across the hardwood with a hole in his head. Ah, yes, you think at this point: catastrophe violently disrupts a woman’s complacent middle-class life, and at the most inopportune time of year. But it soon transpires that Clark, a thoughtful and perceptive screenwriter, is less interested in capturing shopworn emotional fallout than in discovering where misfortune, writ large and strange, might take his hardened life-long optimist. As it happens, Suzanne hardly proves suited to sustained brooding, and after a few days slumped and miserable she’s eager for distraction. Tracking down and befriending the twenty-something stripper with whom her husband once had an affair, Suzanne is whisked away into a nightlife of bar rails and keys of cocaine. Thus it isn’t long before her mourning finds a rather more intriguing outlet.

But don’t expect the wrist-slapping moralism of the typical ‘downward spiral’ narrative — Clark is no more interested in punishing his characters than he is in ridiculing Christmas. That’s typical of his approach: Clark rarely seems interested in anything that might be expected. He doesn’t so much oscillate between comic and tragic registers as present the two tones simultaneously, finding both humor in sadness (as when a co-worker comforts Suzanne by offering help . . . selling her home) and sadness in humor (as when a gag about family drama is interrupted by an announcement of divorce). This lends “White Reindeer” a somewhat elusive quality. But that’s precisely what makes the film so unusual — and so unusually appealing. There’s a story Clark tells often in interviews about watching his senile grandfather ramble incoherently at a family dinner. As a child, he says, it was unbearably sad, but later he realized how funny it was — how it was in fact sad and funny at the same time. Well, that’s the defining tenor of “White Reindeer”. It recognizes that, yes, death is tragic and, of course, that Christmas is silly. But it also knows there’s more to both than that.

SCORE: 8.4 / 10