By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 5, 2013 at 9:09AM
Filmmaker Zach Clark's first two features, the scrappy nurse-turned-dominatrix comedy "Modern Love Is Automatic" and the wicked beach party noir "Vacation!," paired restless formalism with Clark's penchant for deadpan humor. By contrast, his touching Christmas tale "White Reindeer" funnels Clark's darker sensibilities and erotic themes into a decidedly more complicated vision of suburban unrest. With a mixture of pathos and dry wit, Clark delivers a solemn twist on the holiday movie formula that simultaneously inhabits the genre and turns it inside out.
At first, "White Reindeer" looks like the set up for a routine studio comedy, with giddy real estate agent Suzanne Barrington (a superb Anna Margaret Hollyman) in good spirits as she closes a major deal and celebrates her weatherman husband's upcoming new gig in Hawaii just in time for the holidays. In a safer movie, things might go awry with the couple in their new surroundings; instead, Clark traps them in their existing environment, in one case for good. Arriving home to discover her husband murdered by a nighttime invader, Suzanne finds herself abruptly single and stuck in her boring town with nothing to do but grieve. From here, Clark develops an unexpectedly somber and curiously witty narrative about the process of emotional recovery that's ironically in tune with the Christmas spirit it cynically picks apart.
Imagine "Home Alone" as directed by Todd Solondz and you'll start to get the idea. Clark doesn't hesitate to linger in Suzanne's grief, which grows worse when she learns that her husband was cheating on her with a stripper named Fantasia. Rather than lash out in anger, however, Suzanne tracks the other woman down and forms a bizarre friendship with her, an act that takes both of them into realms they would otherwise never go, leading to results both amusing and dangerous. In premise alone, "White Reinder" suggests "The Descendants" with a harsher bite, right down to the symbolic usage of Hawaiian iconography -- manifested in this case through Hawaiian language renditions of Christmas pastimes.
Nevertheless, there's plenty of sincerity to the plot. For Fantasia, a low income single parent grappling with her mother's illness, Suzanne's generosity is a cryptic holiday miracle, whereas Suzanne uses the association as one of several means of distancing herself from her inner turmoil. Using the patient, often wordless and occasionally stilted style familiar from his previous efforts, Clark views Suzanne through the prism of her incapacity to reconcile the prevalent Christmas aura with her specific context in it. "It's going to be a sad season," her mother predicts, but even as Suzanne faces this fact, she goes to almost ludicrous extremes to dance around it.
Clark's utilization of family movie formulas is potent. He relishes conflicting imagery, like the sight of an unkempt Suzanne sprawled out on her couch in front of a brightly lit Christmas tree after a wild night out. Even when "White Reindeer" starts to get more perverted, Clark sustains a warm atmosphere. Seeking further escape, Suzanne attends one of her neighbor's irreverent sex parties (co-hosted by none other than a nude, grinning Joe Swanberg), setting up a comedic sequence that's less overly sensationalistic than sneakily profound for the way it further analyzes the secrets lurking beneath dreams of domesticity. Hollyman's tender performance is rife ambiguity as she says little but expresses much, particularly in the ambiguous finale.
Even so, "White Reindeer" loses some of its depth in quirky asides and flimsy stabs at deepening an already poignant scenario. Though she elicits plenty of sympathy, Suzanne seems like a vessel for Clark's playful navigation of various moods. Nevertheless, the filmmaker rises to an enticing challenge with a cryptic, slowly engrossing approach. "White Reindeer" eagerly pokes the mythology surrounding the holiday season narrative to find something hauntingly beautiful lurking beneath it.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening this week at New York's IFC Center, "White Reindeer" may not become a box office hit but is well-positioned to reap the benefits of being holiday counter-programming available on VOD just in time for the holidays.