In Black Snow, the Deadshirt crew takes a look at some darker entries in the yuletide cinematic canon.
“I have never had such a Christmas! Sex and drugs and women being set on fire.”
The Ref lays out its main idea right at the very start. As the credits appear, the camera tracks through an idyllic New England town that could be right next to Bedford Falls. There are Salvation Army Santas ringing bells, children looking longingly in the toy shop windows, and friendly shopkeepers waving goodbye to their last customer of the day. This small-town Christmas fantasy is brought to an abrupt end as we enter the office of Dr. Wong (played by B.D. Wong, appropriately), a marriage counselor dealing with his last clients of the day: Lloyd Chasseur (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis). It’s instantly clear that for this married couple, as for most of the people we meet in the film, dysfunction doesn’t take a holiday: it’s not a job with days off, it’s a vocation.
Luckily for the Chasseurs, they run into Gus (Denis Leary), a cat burglar trying to escape a job gone wrong. The police have thrown up roadblocks and he needs somewhere to hide. He picks the Chasseurs as his hostages, not realizing that their son is coming home from military school that night and that their relatives are driving up for Christmas dinner. Thus, over the course of this cynical farce, Gus is forced to masquerade as their marriage counselor to maintain control over his hostages while inadvertently forcing the Chasseur clan to be better people.
Now’s where I lay all my cards on the table and admit that have very fond memories of The Ref from catching the “edited for TV” version in dribs and drabs on Comedy Central in the mid-afternoon in the late 90s. But revisiting it for the first time in years, it’s held up pretty well. As pop culture has felt more comfortable confronting the way that the sentiment of the holiday season can feel trite in the face of personal problems, The Ref has held its bite.
And I say that as someone who mostly enjoys the sentimental nature of the season. But even the most cheerful person, full of Christmas spirit, must occasionally feel the hypocrisy of the season. And The Ref manages to check off all the maudlin insincerities of this time of year.
There’s a nosy neighbor full of forced holiday cheer who dresses as Santa and goes from house to house while resenting the lack of appreciation for his (self-appointed) duties. There are relatives who come to visit even though they won’t enjoy the visit and they despise their hosts. There’s the angry customer at the store who ‘s going to spend ten minutes complaining at the register that they don’t have something in stock, instead of just using that time to go to another store to find it.
The Ref contains all these recognizable trials and more. But while this could easily feel like a checklist of Christmas bitterness, the moments are deployed so they feed off of each other. Of course that lady at the store is annoyed: her relatives are arriving and if she doesn’t have the right kind of cranberry sauce, they’re going to complain about it until next Christmas. Yeah, the Santa is bitter, but he’s doing it to hand out his wife’s fruit cakes, which he knows no one likes and no one will even bother to pretend otherwise. The bitterness and cynicism reinforce a downward spiral.
The cure for the Chasseur family spiral, at least, is Denis Leary as Gus. He’s a force that can be forestalled or placated, but he can’t be passive-aggressively condescended to or lied to. And since all he cares about is making his escape, he’s an impartial party that can call everyone (and I mean everyone) on their sh*t.
The role is tailor-made for Denis Leary. He’s forced to hold back his all-consuming rage for long periods of time, but that only makes his subsequent explosions more powerful. He’s not particularly subtle, but he’s not supposed to be. His equal-opportunity a-hole schtick works perfectly here because almost everyone he comes in contact with deserves a telling-off.
He’s also helped by Spacey and Davis, who bring specificity to roles that could easily come off as knock-offs of George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Part of it is both Spacey and Davis show enough moments of realization of how wretched their lives are and enough genuine concern for the other (but always when the other is inattentive or too preoccupied to notice). Caroline talks endlessly about her affair to almost everyone, it’s implied, but when she finds out Lloyd told her mother-in-law, her expression is heartbreaking. Furthermore, Spacey and Davis really find the emotional range in their long-running arguments, differentiating between the moments where they are almost sparring for the sake of sparring and the moments where one draws blood from the other.
As counterpoints to this, Leary and the Chasseurs’ real enemies end up being the extended Chasseur family, led by Lloyd’s mother Rose (Glynis Johns), the embodiment of every haughty WASP matriarch stereotype, and Connie (Christine Baranski), Lloyd’s shrill, nagging sister-in-law. These two especially play big, but their energy and personalities keep the film moving and balance out the darkness. Rose especially is such a figure of hatefulness that you can’t help but find Lloyd and Caroline more sympathetic, especially since it’s clear that their frustration with her is one of the things bonding them together. Baranksi, on the other hand, gets some of the biggest laugh-lines, as her determination to police Christmas cheer clashes with her aggressive attitude.
On the directing front, Ted Demme (the nephew of the great Jonathan Demme) mostly keeps the film moving quickly and clearly, with few visual frills. The one notable exception is the opening tracking shot through the town. However, he does a great job of establishing the layout of the house where 80% of the movie takes place, as well as making it clear where each character is at a given time, essential qualities for a farce. In conjunction with the cinematographer, Adam Kimmel, they make good use of shadow and light, inside and outside, so that the bright holiday decorations contrast with the darkness instead of illuminating it.
The score, provided by former Eurthymic Dave Stewart, is a little anonymous, but does make good use of traditional holiday music by Burl Ives and Nat “King” Cole as the soundtrack to the various arguments and crises. Much like in the real world, sentimental Christmas music is everywhere, regardless of how appropriate it is for someone’s mood.
Despite all the bracing cynicism, the movie still gives us the redemption for our leads, so we can see Gus transform the Chasseur family, as they rediscover their love for each and unite against outside threats. In fact, the transformation is so complete that it ends with Leary, disguised as Santa, running through the new-fallen snow with a toy sack (filled with burgled items) to his own “sleigh”, a rusted boat commandeered by his partner. Christmas, after all, is a time for miracles.
Keep checking back throughout December for more Black Snow!