Despite his prominence in the indie landscape over the past two decades, Todd Solondz hasn’t been a noticeable influence on many other filmmakers, perhaps because his worldview is simply too corrosive. It’s always seemed like there could be room for a more compassionate variation on Solondz’s mordant amalgam of bleak drama and black comedy, though, and writer-director Zach Clark (Modern Love Is Automatic, Vacation!)makes an intriguing if somewhat shaky bid for the position with his fourth full-length feature, White Reindeer. If nothing else, this is the least festive Christmas movie since Bad Santa, dissecting the absurd belief that the holiday season can somehow magically cure all ills. Every year, horrible things happen to plenty of people in late December; Die Hard aside, it’s rare to see a movie that acknowledges it.
For Suzanne Barrington (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a happily married real estate agent, this particular Christmas season is marked with the blood and brain matter of her husband, Jeff (Nathan Williams), who’s brutally murdered in a home invasion while Suzanne is out shopping. Her attempt to manage her grief in the midst of everything holly and jolly initially sees her go nuts with online purchases, but before long she’s befriending Fantasia, the stripper (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) with whom her husband had recently had an affair (discovered through his browser history plus a friend’s confession), and inviting herself to the swinger orgy being held by her new neighbors (Joe Swanberg and Lydia Hyslop). The pain of having her world turned upside down in this cruel way, at this moment on the calendar, spurs her to finish the job, even if that means shoplifting from Macy’s and screwing random strangers.
Unlike Solondz, Clark doesn’t seem hell-bent on punishing his protagonist just to demonstrate what a raw deal life hands many people. Suzanne is sheltered and blinkered, but she’s genuinely trying to cope, and Hollyman’s beautifully grounded performance ensures that she doesn’t come across like a punching bag. All the same, this is an exceedingly tricky tonal balance to pull off, and White Reindeer doesn’t always succeed in reconciling its quieter, more humane moments with its lurid interludes. There’s a happy medium, for example, between Hollywood’s fantasy notion of sex and this film’s “realistic” take, in which everybody looks ridiculous bordering on grotesque. (Even an early quickie between Suzanne and her husband, before he’s killed, involves banal dirty talk designed to make viewers wince.) And Fantasia is aptly named, as she’s a screenwriter’s well-meaning ideal of earthy frankness and beneficent wisdom—a larcenous, coke-snorting party animal one moment, a doting mother and amateur shrink the next. There’s some hard-bitten truth in White Reindeer, but you have to dig past the garish exaggeration to find it.