The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors and eating the stale chocolate lurking behind them. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. This week’s theme: holiday classics, old and new.
“I hope you don’t mind a little early holiday cheer,” says real-estate agent Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) to a couple of prospective homeowners in the opening scene of White Reindeer. For our chipper suburban heroine, whose middle name is literally Noel, holiday cheer can never come too early: She’s the type of person who drags her decorations out of the attic the day after Thanksgiving and can’t wait for the local radio station to start kicking out the seasonal standards 24-7. Yes, Suzanne drinks the yuletide Kool-Aid (or egg nog, as it were). Nothing can dampen the Christmas spirit of this dyed-in-the-wool holiday fanatic—except, perhaps, coming home one chilly winter evening to find her meteorologist husband shot dead on the living room carpet, the victim of a burglary gone horrifically wrong. There are lumps of coal in the stocking and then there’s that early, unwanted gift from the universe.
Turning the run-up to December 25 into a dark-comic gauntlet of sex, drugs, violence, theft, irresponsible spending, and unspeakable sorrow, White Reindeer seems specifically designed to join the pantheon of alternative Christmas movies. (Just look at the poster, which depicts Hollyman standing in front of lines of coke arranged in the shape of a Christmas tree.) At heart, however, it’s a little different from those anti-merriment staples. Films like Bad Santa and Gremlins work as counter-programming for people who hate Christmas; they’re the perfect antidote for all the relentless sentimentalism of the season—a shot of whiskey to kill the sugar buzz. White Reindeer, on the other hand, is a Christmas movie for people who want to get in on the Christmas spirit but simply can’t locate that feeling because of all the shit they’re dealing with in their lives. In other words, it’s a Christmas movie about the burden of being happy around the holidays and the loneliness of feeling miserable when everyone and everything around you is telling you to forget your troubles, deck the halls, and spread the love. For anyone who has ever had, as Suzanne’s mother puts it, a “sad December,” White Reindeer will hit close to home.
It certainly struck a chord with me. Thankfully, I’ve never had to deal with finding a loved one’s brains splashed across the carpet in December or any other month of the year. But I know what it’s like to feel blue during the colder months and to wish there were a way to put that funk on hold until the new year.
I grew up in what Arrested Development’s Ann Veal might refer to as The Secular World: The son of two proud nonbelievers, I didn’t set foot in a church until I was a teenager. Like plenty of heathen families, however, we still celebrated Christmas—not as the birth of our lord and savior, but as a time to exchange gifts, watch season-appropriate movies, and just be together. The rituals of the Dowd/Eby family Christmas weren’t religious, but they were upheld religiously: My mother, who cleaned houses for very little money after she and my father divorced, often struggled to make ends meet, but somehow, there were always at least one or two presents under the tree for my sister and me. (Though I have no alternative experience to back this feeling up, I’ve always suspected that getting only a few gifts somehow made said gifts more exciting and rewarding. Maybe that’s just poor-kid sour grapes.)
For me, and I’m sure for plenty of others, there’s a Pavlovian rush to the holiday season. The snow, the songs, the lights, the smells—they all provoke an intense, almost physical reaction, even as I’ve spent fewer and fewer Christmases with my family. But this nostalgic buzz also comes with the expectation of feeling a certain way. Because the memories associated with, say, gingerbread cookies or “The Little Drummer Boy” are mostly happy, encountering those things as an adult can sometimes underline the discrepancy between how I felt then and how I feel now. And that absence—of happiness, or just of the pure, uncomplicated joy Christmas brought as a kid—is amplified by a culture that insists on demanding that everyone feel unburdened during the final month of the calendar year. Turn on the television or stare into a storefront, and the message is clear: It’s Christmastime, so be happy. Is there anything lonelier than feeling sad when surrounded by constant cheerfulness, artificial or not? The cognitive dissonance is deafening.
White Reindeer is about the grief of losing a spouse and the difficulty of putting your life back together when it’s shattered by tragedy, but it’s also—and perhaps more fundamentally—about the various ways we cope with feeling unhappy during the holidays. Beginning on the night of the murder, the film counts down to Christmas, with each new day arriving like a warning: Only one more week to feel happy in time for Christmas. Subjected, perhaps, to some divine crucible, Suzanne finds her problems confounded at every turn. Her coworkers, a noxiously phony bunch, offer only platitudes. Her parents are little help, eventually revealing that they’re getting a divorce. The ultimate insult to injury, and one that makes the grieving process much more complicated, is the discovery that her husband cheated on her with a young stripper. The poor woman can’t even simply feel sad—she’s got feelings of betrayal to sort through, too. Even the Virginia weather seems to have turned against her: There is no snow, just a general chill and gusts of unforgiving wind. It’s a grey Christmas in every respect.
Initially, Suzanne tries blanketing over her despair with the usual seasonal signifiers—the music, the ornaments, etc.—but soon finds, as Abed did in that great Glee-spoofing episode of Community, that “forcing things to be bright makes the darkness underneath even darker.” She also attempts to soothe her sorrow by splurging on clothes and decorations, maxing out her credit card in the process. Plenty of Christmas movies have tackled the rampant materialism of the season—one starring Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, and a coveted action figure leaps to mind—but White Reindeer goes further by empathetically dramatizing the national pastime of throwing money at seasonal affective disorder.
When her traditional Christmas rituals fail to raise her spirits, Suzanne turns to less conventional holiday activities: She does blow, shoplifts from Macy’s, and goes to an orgy down the street, thrown by the same couple from the first scene. She also starts hanging with Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough), the stripper her husband was seeing, and the two develop an unlikely friendship. These elements could have been pulled from any Christmas-set black comedy, except that White Reindeer infuses them with a kind of melancholy desperation: Again, this is not a movie about throwing a middle finger at the holiday season, but about doing everything in your power to locate a feeling—the wonder of the most wonderful time of the year—that’s gone absent. “Why doesn’t it feel like Christmas?” Suzanne asks at the sex party, though she already knows the answer.
In its unusual and unusually bleak way, White Reindeer feels like a bona fide Christmas movie, even as it plunges its heroine further into despair. Many of the film’s most iconic predecessors, from Miracle On 34th Street to It’s A Wonderful Life to Home Alone, have an undercurrent of melancholy. Here, that aspect is merely amplified, the better to create a new mutation of the genre: the Christmas movie for depressed, nostalgic, Christmas-loving grownups. The film’s pivotal scene borrows from that most bittersweet of yuletide classics, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, by putting Suzanne in conversation with a (real? imagined?) spirit. Basking in the glow of some cartoon X-Mas special, she explains that what she really misses is believing in the magic of the holiday. That confession articulates why Christmas is so hard for a lot of adults: All the mascots and the bric-a-brac of the season are still here, but the sense of wonder and excitement that used to accompany them has gone missing. It’s genuinely special to find a Christmas movie, however imperfect, that communicates this experience. Now, if someone could just make a movie about how depressing December 26 is.
Monday: You’ll shoot your eye out.