By Tom Nixon
A review for Zach Clark’s White Reindeer may seem overdue as we approach the rear end of winter, but rest assured it comes fully equipped for the post-Holiday Season blues. Accompanying a woman through her grieving process in the days leading up to Christmas, it’s a film about coming to terms with the past and striding into the future — a theme which becomes all the more relevant every time we settle into a new year. It’s initially a cautionary film which uses the loss of festive spirit as a springboard for examining the psychology of nostalgia, and the small miracle is that despite deviating into murder, sex and drugs, it ultimately comes full circle, re-affirming the value of Christmas for a cynical generation.
Suzanne, played by the adorably unassuming Anna Margaret Hollyman, is a happily married realtor annually indulging what she believes to be an innocent infatuation with Christmas merriment. Her meteorologist husband’s new job in Hawaii shines on the horizon, and as per usual she’s a little premature with her festive cheer — she’s even acquired a record of the region’s Christmas tunes in her giddy anticipation. Alas, the husband’s forecast is rather chillier than expected, and Suzanne is greeted one evening by the sight of her beloved face-down in a pool of his own blood, the victim of a seemingly random crime. Strange, given that Suzanne had just innocuously reassured a pair of amiable clients as to the safety of the neighbourhood, but then maybe she meant the fantasy world of elves and flying reindeer in which her mind continually dwells.
Suzanne’s mood isn’t improved when she discovers in her husband’s bookmarks a penchant for inter-racial porn, and a family friend confesses knowledge of an affair with a black stripper named Autumn. It’s apparent that Christmas is a crutch for Suzanne, an escape from the pressures of adult life, and she isn’t sure how to retain her festive spirit after this dousing of painful reality. Her identity increasingly becomes a fluid thing, untethered; she finds herself idealising an online clothes model, a projection of her desire to re-invent herself as an independent woman who never needed things like love and Christmas in the first place. She splashes cash on hip new clothes as an empty transformative gesture, then seeks out her husband’s lover at the local strip club. “Don’t call me Autumn, that’s my stripper name. Call me Fantasia,” goes a line typical of Clark’s Solondz-tinged deadpan, as the two bond through mutual sympathy, curiosity and, in Suzanne’s case, a misguided extension of her newly desired bad-girl persona. This impulse reaps comic rewards in scenes of ludicrously out-of-character shoplifting and drug abuse, but also teeters on the edge of tragedy, as we understand she’s merely replaced one temporary, destructive fantasy with another.
White Reindeer is about a woman learning to live in the world rather than her own world, but Clark’s specific pre-occupation with Christmas, his black humour and his wise, measured worldview make it less schematic than most coming-of-age flicks. Dealing in delusions, Clark is quick to disengage himself from any religious implications, having Suzanne specifically point out her indifference to the birth of Jesus. This isn’t a film about faith so much as an examination of nostalgia through the lens of Christmas, wherein images of cosy childhood excitement butt up against corporate glitz, kitsch and suffering; pre-adolescent rituals sapped of their magic over time, yet clung to ever more fiercely in an attempt to stave off the encroaching sense of loss. Every image framing Suzanne’s trials and tribulations is littered with Christmas colours, lighting and iconography; Clark has cited National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as an influence upon the infusion of Christmas associations into his visual palette. A desperate Suzanne shells out on mountains of decorations; a shot of her standing amongst them, lonesome and pathetic, speaks volumes about the futility of this act, flailing naively toward an idealised past that can never be recovered.
Naturally, these cynical juxtapositions have led to grossly over-simplified interpretations of White Reindeer as being anti-Christmas and condescending toward its characters, but in interviews Clark points out how much he loves the Holiday Season and sympathises with his obsessed protagonist. In a running gag of sorts, Suzanne considers whether to open the gift her late husband had been hiding in the wardrobe. It looms like a symbol of all that’s been lost, a ghost of the past chaining Suzanne to a time that no longer exists. The surprising, touching moment when she confronts that ghost reveals how Clark’s merely been setting us up for our own self-reckoning, pandering to our negativity in order to make his optimistic subversion all the more startling.
At the climax, Suzanne comes face-to-face with her ghost of Christmas present too (in the guise of her idolised model, naturally), and reaches an epiphany. The resulting gesture echoes ‘A Christmas Carol’ but also the end of Toy Story 3 in its bittersweetness, and that trilogy is an apt comparison indeed, for it too tempers an unrelenting pursuit of lost innocence with an understanding of mortality and the fleeting nature of time. The bleakest moment of Toy Story 3 is when Woody utters a throwaway line about Bo Peep having moved on. She’s just… gone, since the last film, and it never comes up again not due to lazy storytelling but because the characters are endlessly skirting around that particular black hole, lest it swallow them whole. White Reindeer’s black hole is forced upon Suzanne early, and it forces her to realise that Christmas is valuable not as an amber-tinged haven from the present, but as a way of bonding with that present. By effectively passing the torch to a young girl, she confines her past to memory where it belongs, focusing instead on creating new memories to treasure along with it. Christmas is dead; long live Christmas!
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.