Abel Ferrara’s ‘R Xmas begins with the following disclaimer: “In December of 1993 the Honorable David Dinkins was completing his first and only term as Mayor of New York.” Ferrara fans should note that ‘R Xmas marks a return to form for the New York director and while the film initially feels derivative of his masterful King of New York, ‘R Xmas reveals itself as the most subversive work of Ferrara’s career. During the film’s opening sequence, Ferrara teases us with an old-school view-askew of New York City untainted by commercialism. His camera pulls back and reveals a child’s school play in progress. It’s Christmas in New York City and the hot new toy on the market is the life-size Party Girl doll. Thus begins Ferrara’s daring correlation between the commerce of the Christmas season and the world of drugs.
A Manhattan couple (Lillo Brancato and Drea de Matteo) operates a drug ring out of their Flushing apartment. Brancato carefully measures cocaine into packages delicately stamped with a “TKO” insignia by his associates. This entire procedural is scored by Schooly-D, who previously worked with Ferrara on New Rose Hotel and The Blackout and recently appeared in Asia Argento’s Scarlet Diva. The Yuletide anthems (“Silent Night” and “Joy to the World”) Schooly-D recycles throughout the film chillingly evoke a mournful New York City hiding behind Christmas cheer. Just as Christopher Walken’s druglord from King of New York made for an unconventional man of the people, Bancato’s “The Husband” similarly makes for an unlikely Santa Claus. Ferrara understands the viciousness, pervasiveness and necessity of commerce. Are the two women who fight each other over the last Party Girl doll any different than the junkies on the street waiting for their next hit?
Way before Guiliani began driving sex shops into poor neighborhoods and away from his Disneyfied New York City, Ferrara’s King of New York daringly evoked the positive effects of drugs on communities Guiliani would describe as morally compromised. In ‘R Xmas, Ferrara seemingly challenges the meaning of legitimacy. For de Matteo’s “The Wife,” the only thing scarier than losing her husband to Ice-T’s “Kidnapper” and his ilk is the thought that her daughter will have to drop out of private school should they cease their drug operation. “This is the best Christmas ever,” says the little girl, oblivious that her father nearly lost his life the night before. A bleeding heart liberal, yes, but Ferrara, no matter how actively he’s playing the role of guttersnipe, directs with a moral ambiguity that is quintessentially his own.
De Matteo makes for a very convincing Latina and Ferrara’s refusal to provide subtitles during key moments in the film only heightens the overall air of authenticity and tension. Ferrara’s mise-en-scène beautifully emphasizes the Dominican family’s religiosity and pragmatism. Not only does the pervasiveness of Christmas signifiers evoke the sacredness of rituals but it also emphasizes de Matteo’s divine function as a guardian angel. Abel Ferrara is at once a stirring realist and a remarkable formalist. One of the great joys of watching ‘R Xmas is that Ferrara directs the entire film with the kind of detachment that makes any given frame look like a family’s custom-made Christmas card. To think that some critics take the film’s closing “to be continued” as a sign of an ‘R Xmas 2 to come. Ferrara fans already know that Guiliani already wrote the sequel. Merry Christmas!