If it weren’t for the past few years, where Christmas has been an increasingly joyful communal celebration, I’d peg the holidays down as downright depressing. The relentlessly commercialized nature of the holidays can just be a grating experience, often times rendering the senses dull. And Christmas music? The worst. Zach Clark’s White Reindeer understands the melancholic aura of the holidays and compounds it with what may very well be the most traumatic experience in anyone’s life: the loss of a spouse.
Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is on a roll. She’s a real estate agent in Virginia and just sold a house about a month before Christmas. Her husband just scored a job in Hawaii and they’ll be moving there at the start of the year. Once you’ve reached your high, you have nowhere else but to go down. When Suzanne discovers her dead husband’s body in an apparent home invasion, her dreams are shattered. What follows is an exercise in self-coping, where Suzanne contends with her husband’s death along with the discovery of his past infidelities. Her husband’s extracurricular activities included rendezvous with young strippers on the side, a piece of news that Suzanne was advised of at the funeral procession. Who was the man she loved? And more importantly, when having lived and cemented a life with someone else, how do you rearrange the rhythms of living alone?
Clark develops an interesting framework to deconstruct Suzanne’s strained psyche. He purposefully provides the audience with a countdown of the proximity to Christmas Day, essentially functioning as a time bomb in which Suzanne’s actions become increasingly erratic. From excessive online shopping to an eggnog binge, Suzanne’s reaction to her husband’s death is to emulate the Christmas spirit as best possible. Her acts of consumerism are simply ingrained efforts at coping. It makes sense that none of these actions actually resolve her depression, where her subsequent actions up the ante in terms of shock. In an attempt to understand her husband better, she looks up the woman he had an affair with and befriends her. It’s a desperate plea on her end to fill her new void. From the high she experiences at the opening of the picture we see Suzanne hit rock bottom… hard. Trading in her eggnog for cocaine and ladies night with a neighborly orgy, White Reindeer dabbles down some dark crevices of the human psyche. And while Clark cuts through the darkness with some humor, there’s an unexpected level of humanism that outlines much of the film. Part of it is because Hollyman presents the character so delicately - the trauma sweeps over her to the extent that she becomes a blank slate and open to the extremisms she experiences.
White Reindeer’s shortcomings play hand in hand with its strength, as the ticking-clock framework that Clark utilizes unwinds into a conclusion that’s a bit too tidy for the messy schematic that the film presents. Still, this is a great exercise in tone management and there’s an exemplary lead performance from Hollyman, which is more than I can ask for from something coming out of the mumblecore movement.