The suburban sprawl of Northern Virginia functions alternately as purgatory and hell in Zach Clark’s White Reindeer, a pitch-black “holiday movie” quite unlike any other holiday movie in recent memory. Following Suzanne Barrington (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a real estate agent whose life is thrown into complete disarray when her husband is murdered in a burglary gone wrong, the film is a sly and nasty one-woman odyssey set amid strip malls and suburban homes. While many lesser filmmakers would condescend to this environment by presenting narratives of grand self-actualization or discovering “deeper” meaning, Clark refuses such a didactic approach. His film charts a journey into the extremes of human emotion and behavior, going to much darker and weirder places than you might expect, while also grounding that journey in the rhythms of daily life. As a result, what’s dark and weird about White Reindeer is also what’s tangible, authentic, and wise about it.
The plot plays out like the morbid inverse of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, all the way down to a recurring motif of Hawaiian music: When Suzanne learns of a fling her husband had earlier that year with a stripper, Autumn (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough), she tracks down and reaches out to the girl, and the two develop a strange and tenuous friendship. Autumn’s real name is Fantasia, but Suzanne doesn’t discover that until after the pair have embarked on an all-night cocaine-infused bender that’s straight out of Twin Peaks. Shoplifting sprees, swinger parties, and even a stint in jail are soon to follow, and though none provide any lasting relief, they help Suzanne waste away the days leading up to Christmas, which looms portentously over her grieving process as a reminder of the life she once led and will never lead again.
Suzanne’s transition from numb, emotionally vacated suburbanite to substance-abusing thrill-seeker is a bit hard to swallow on paper, but Hollyman is a nuanced, resourceful performer, and ably telegraphs the confusion and desperation behind Suzanne’s new try-anything-once attitude. Unfortunately, the depth of Suzanne’s characterization only makes it harder to ignore how underdeveloped the minor characters are: her real estate girlfriends read like a bad SNL parody of The Stepford Wives, and the swinger couple to whom she sells a house (and later befriends) come across as a missed opportunity in character shading; we learn nothing about them beyond their sexual proclivities.
But if these characters are essentially walking punchlines, at least they’re punchlines in a genuinely funny film, albeit one that uses comedy only in subservience to a greater, darker purpose. White Reindeer mines humor out of sadness, and sadness out of humor: The sight of Suzanne trying to slash open a cardboard box with a half-eaten candy cane, or her priceless reaction to the announcement of her parents’ separation, seem almost accidentally hilarious, as though the camera was left running during exercises in character development.
Comedy springs organically from the inherent absurdity of Suzanne’s trajectory, and so does poignancy: One of White Reindeer’s most powerful moments arrives when it’s least expected, in the middle of Suzanne’s bewildered introduction to the swinger set. When several participants reach the conclusion of their play and congregate around the kitchen, still in various states of undress, they begin to discuss their children, tenderly relaying stories and swapping parenting advice. It’s a shattering, completely surprising moment, and a perfect crystallization of why White Reindeer works. Here, as in the rest of the film, the lines between the shocking, funny, mundane, and compelling are so blurred as to be indistinguishable, giving Suzanne room to grow and heal at her own unusual pace.