White Reindeer – Zach Clark brings a Christmas tale with a twist. (Film Review)

Munching through the Christmas paraphernalia, from ‘C’ movies through ‘C’ music to ‘C’ food, we arrive at a cute little indie called White Reindeer released in 2013. Perhaps a little somber to become a Christmas staple, Zach Clarke has written and directed a simple enough flick that combines enough of the right elements to have some enduring ideas that rescue it from the danger of banal interpretations, but the film’s warmth and what makes it so unforgettable is the right-on-target comic excellence of indie actress Anna Margaret Hollyman who turns what could be a cliché about a suburban housewife discovering ‘life out there’ into a deeper awareness that sometimes we know what’s ‘out there’ and we deliberately choose ‘no’.

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Suzanne Barrington is a real estate agent married to her college sweetheart, who fucks her nicely before romantic dinners and injects thought and energy into little surprises for her. The film opens with Suzanne at work, selling a house to a young couple, a fake fireplace on the television and christmas carols in early December. It’s the facade of perfection, the snake oil that accompanies the business of real estate, but it manages to work on a young picture perfect couple who decide to buy the house. Swept away by her evenings success, Suzanne goes home to an idyllic evening with her husband Jeff (Nathan Williams), a TV weather man, who announces he got a job he wanted and that they will be moving to Hawaii in January. The next day Suzanne takes a stroll through the mall, does a little shopping, buys a Christmas tree, and goes home to find her husband dead on the floor after a twitchy burglar has shot him.

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The next hour of White Reindeer exhibits the surreal world of loss and suffering in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy that transforms and consumes life. Suzanne’s life is so devastated that she exists in a cloud just above the day-to-day, but its the very funny little touches, amplifying the state of grief and yet countering the sadness with the absurdity that life is that make the film, such as an awkward policeman offering her a candy cane when he doesn’t know what else to do, and Suzanne then taking solace in a candy cane throughout the film, until she purchases so many she will be living off them for decades. Hollyman’s comic timing is perfect and combines flawlessly with the depth of her grief so that the many surprises that come her way, such as finding out her husband had an affair with a stripper, morph into the expectations of a world completely different from the one she’d planned. These moments are clichés – the husband had a lover, the lover and the wife become friends, the family fall apart when they are supposed to be helping Suzanne, the polyamourous suburban couple – but they are treated as though we are to expect them, peppered with the unexpected (such as a depressed Suzanne farting and then smelling) and therefore are lifted from a snarky presumption that the film would have had otherwise. It’s hard to tell if this is a happy accident on the part of Zach Clarke, based on the intelligent performance of Hollyman, or if it is unimaginative (and perhaps a tad patronizing) plotting filled with wit, but either way it is successful enough to make the first hour engaging and very enjoyable.

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White Reindeer then loses it a little in the last twenty minutes, abandoning the humour for a serious look at Suzanne’s life who, presumably we like now because we’ve had all the warm-hearted connection going on for an hour and ten minutes. It’s a real shame, because the film starts to drag and the little touches that worked so well as wit, are transfered by Clark’s writing into symbols that are a bit too sledge-hammer in their lack of subtlety, if not downright predictable. While the first half of the film is a really excellent examination of grief, the latter part lurches into a ‘what does Christmas really mean’ morality tale, with the punchline being is Suzanne going to be a ghost of Christmas past of a ghost of Christmas future?  This feels like a slap in the face for the care we’ve invested in Suzanne as surely twenty-four days after the tragedy, and on Christmas eve, it’s too early to imagine she is going to include grief in her personal makeup and embrace life, despite the inclusion of several points of interest that make us believe Suzanne needs to get her act together. White Reindeer is funnier and more clever when she is mourning, this being Clark’s strong point, and even Hollyman doesn’t appear to be completely sure of what to do with all the hotchpotch of stuff smoothing out the wrinkles in the latter part of the film.

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However, the witty moments of White Reindeer are filled with that rare brilliant subtlety the people in my country equate with British humour and lament the lack of in the usual American comic fare, and there are many of them, rolling out one after the other, making White Reindeer the sort of film you will want to watch again (or encourage a friend to watch) to catch more of the witty detail the second time around.

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