Christmas is a holiday supported by centuries of traditions, and to this vast array of traditions the 20th century contributed, among others, the Christmas movie. Certainly countless families flock to the movie theaters on Christmas Day to take in the latest Fockers, Jack Black vehicle, or what-have-you; but it is not to this I refer. Indeed, no sooner has the Thanksgiving turkey’s triptophanic slumber overtaken us than a month-long Christmas-themed movie free-for-all begins. Perhaps you open the season as my wife and I do with a late-Thanksgiving Day screening of 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And what Christmas season would be complete without partaking in at least one of the innumerable cinematic interpretations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol? And let us not forget, of course, Rudolph, Frosty, and the like. Many tune in to NBC on Christmas Eve to watch It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which still managed to secure over four million viewers in 2010, while others prefer to go out for the evening to catch It’s a Wonderful Life and the White Christmas (1954) Sing-A-Long at the Annual Music Box Christmas Show in Chicago. And yet there are others still who opt for less conventional Christmas movies such as Die Hard (1988) or Gremlins (1984).
"But what about Reindeer Games?" the spirit of John Frankenheimer wails, rattling his Dickensian chains. Indeed, even this highly improbable, Frankenheimer-helmed, Christmas heist movie has become traditional viewing for some. For eight years running, my wife, two friends of ours, and I have gathered on Christmas Eve for a compulsory viewing of 2000’s Reindeer Games. Frankenheimer described the film in his DVD commentary as an "edgy, hard movie," and truly he got half of that right, for it is indeed a hard movie – hard to sit through anyway. To ease this hardship, we have, since the inception of this tradition in 2003, supplemented our viewing experience with "some goddamn hot chocolate and some pecan-fucking-pie," as demanded by the film’s protagonist, Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck), upon his release from prison in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Yes, like any Christmas film might, this particular picture opens on a prison. Among the inmates housed there are car thief Rudy and his manslaughtering cellmate Nick (James Frain), both mere days from their coinciding releases. To make an arduous, plot hole-ridden story short: Nick is killed in a prison riot before their release; Rudy shacks up with Nick’s pen pal Ashley (Charlize Theron) after assuming Nick’s identity to get laid; and Rudy is forced, as Nick, to aid a gang of Michigan-based, gun-running truckers in the robbery of the Tomahawk Casino at which Nick was formerly employed as a security guard. Beyond that, it becomes exceedingly difficult to discuss the plot of Reindeer Games with any coherency, for it is every bit the Hitchcockian "wrong man" scenario, only with twice the twists and none of the logic. Frankenheimer speaks to the plot’s improbability when he discusses the "great lengths" to which he went "to avoid being accused of not being logical." Certainly Frankenheimer did everything in his power here to assuage the audience’s constant desire for clarification at each turn of the plot, but every answer provided by Frankenheimer raises at least two additional questions. Moreover, screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s twist ending reveals the success of the heist to have been entirely contingent on a series of highly improbable plot conveniences, making it difficult for this viewer at least to believe the whole thing was planned in advance.
So what does this have to do with Christmas? Honestly, virtually nothing, save for the fact that the Tomahawk Casino heist is carried out on Christmas Eve with Rudy and the truckers disguised in Santa suits. Thus, in approaching the film analytically, the Christmas angle produces scant few results. We glean almost nothing from scrutinizing cellmates Rudy and Nick’s names as references to that most famous reindeer of all and Father Christmas. After all, these connections and those of the film’s diegesis to that of the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Johnny Marks are indeed little more than hinted at beyond the film’s title – so much so that this connection appears almost coincidental. The most compelling observation to be made of the film’s connection to the Christmas season is that the Santa Clauses herein, as thieves, take when Santa would give. Whether this is meant to be interpreted as a statement about the commercialism of Christmas or as some sort of critique of the Santa Claus myth, however, is wholly unclear. For me, the key to understanding Reindeer Games is found in the only line spoken by Isaac Hayes as Zook, an inmate who sits across from Nick and Rudy in the prison cafeteria. Upon discovering cockroaches in his Jell-O, Zook repeatedly and tellingly screams that "There are monsters in the gelatin!"
I find three major instances in which this seemingly mad statement holds indelible significance in context of the film. It is not only one of the film’s primary structural and thematic concerns, but is integral to understanding the film’s effect on those of us who have embraced the film ironically. The first application is found in the scene in which the line is uttered. Here, there is little question as to its significance. The cockroaches are literal monsters in literal gelatin. Secondly, when Rudy is forcibly employed by the aforementioned truckers, led by Gabriel, a.k.a. Monster (Gary Sinise), Rudy’s post-incarceration coital vacation comes to a life-threatening conclusion. Gabriel, then, is a literal monster in Rudy’s figurative gelatin. And finally, we look to the world outside the film and this tradition eight years running. As another December 25th approaches and we find ourselves entering that "most wonderful time of the year," the joy of the season is inevitably sullied by the approach of yet another laborious Reindeer Games screening. It’s enough to put you off of Christmas altogether. The film itself then becomes the figurative monster in our figurative year-end deserts.
Admittedly, since its inception in 2003, we have come to embrace this tradition, but there was a time when we indeed dreaded its approach. To diversify the ordeal, we’ve screened both the theatrical release and the Director’s Cut, we’ve watched it with commentary, dubbed in French, and even one year with the film’s soundtrack replaced entirely by that of Dirty Dancing. (It should be noted that we have yet to screen it on Blu-ray, but then, who really needs to see Ben Affleck’s ass in full HD anyway?) Barring the release of a Rifftrax to accompany the film, however, it seems that, from this point forward, we’ll continue to watch the film as John Frankenheimer intended, for our preferred version is indeed the 2001 Director’s Cut. Although this cut boasts an additional twenty minutes over the theatrical release (and more prominently features Ben Affleck’s flexing ass cheeks), it also gleefully showcases greater amounts of violence perpetrated against the cast of characters throughout. This at least makes for a far more palatable monster.