Dual identities, dueling dealers and an overdose of greed
Two socialites seem to have it all: money, power, and a loving, wonderful family. It turns out they achieved the first two by being the most industrious movers of heroin in Manhattan. Like factory workers to the production line, the couple leaves their upper East side digs and travels deep within the city to their old Dominican neighborhood where they work with their stateside kinfolk to keep the flow of drugs moving. The bookkeeper wife always feels that money is missing. The husband knows that his New York ghetto underlings are shorting him, both in cash and in product. One day, while each is transacting business (husband: drugs, wife: doll for their daughter's Christmas present), a stranger approaches their car and tells the wife that her husband has been kidnapped. He demands money. He demands dope. And he demands a very odd and intriguing promise: that she must do anything in her power to keep her husband from continuing to be a dealer. As the wife struggles to find the cash and the stash, the unusual request of the kidnapper continues to haunt her. And this strange ransom is just one of the surprises to befall the couple (and the audience) on this confusing, suspenseful 'R Xmas.
Director Abel Ferrara is well known for his gritty, urban explorations of duality and the mixed nature of man. In films like Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral, he peels back the layers of everyday lives to show the rotten or misbegotten motivation and mentality underneath. And the setup for 'R Xmas is indeed complex. We witness a family preparing for Christmas, enjoying the kind of Hallmark holiday that Madison Avenue and the various homemaking manufacturers have sold the world as being the standard for celebratory bliss. Then, the real world slowly invades as Husband and Wife (or as they are referred to in the film, Mami and Papi) go to work, which just so happens to be pushing heroin onto the rough streets of the inner city. Ferrara does a masterful job of composition and cutting to heighten the mundane, rat race like drudgery of drug preparation, packaging and marketing on such a huge scale. The trickle down attention to detail, from the penthouse to the crackhouse, from Fifth Avenue to ghetto roads is also engrossing. It's refreshing to see the narcotics industry, from the top down, presented in a non-glamorized or gansta'fied fashion. Again, this compliments the duality theme of the story, between the rich suppliers and the barely scraping by street dealers, as does the choice to focus almost exclusively on the Hispanic community with its language and ethos. Many scenes play out in Spanish without any subtitles, emphasizing the double life existence of immigrants. Bound together both culturally and linguistically, but still outsiders within everyday society for the same reasons.
Ferrara obviously wants to address the age-old maxim of being thankful at holiday time and appreciation for family and for life itself. And at the end of the film you get the feeling that the characters have learned this lesson, even as it appears they intend to return to their continued poisoning of the populace with recreational pharmaceuticals. 'R Xmas works best in the scenes where we witness the commercialization of Christmas (and the resulting fights over prized must-have gift items) and the criminalization of Mami and Papi's life. Where the film doesn't work is in the middle third. Prior to Papi's kidnapping, there is an extended sequence where ancillary characters are quickly introduced, given vague, undecipherable machinations to involve the couple in, and then move on never to be seen again. There is a minimum amount of dialogue to explain things, and no one comes along later to tell us the significance of what we just had to sit through. Obviously, it's the set up to Papi's abduction. But the sudden appearance of Ice-T (with a name above the title, but about six minutes of total screen time) as kind of the Ghost of Christmas Snatcher's Past, looking for money and drugs and offering moralizing and misplaced guidance in return is jarring without a proper foundation. The reasons for T's actions are explained later, but as they play out onscreen, they seem mannered and imperceptive. He is very good at suggesting hidden menace. But the film does not successfully prepare us for who he is, why he is doing what he is doing, and who he eventually turns out to be.
In the end, 'R Xmas is a confusing experience. It's fable like framing and ambiguous moral message makes for a definitely different seasonal offering (the idea of Christmas is important to the plot). But with a terrific beginning and an interesting ending, Ferrara has nothing to offer in between to keep us involved. And as lukewarm as the movie feels, so is the overall presentation by Artisan. The anamorphic widescreen image is crisp and clean. You will see a little pixelation and compression defects but they are very minor and do not disrupt the 1.77:1 framing that Ferrara effectively employs. Sound wise, the film is a full-blown surround sensation. Shots fire over your head, characters occupy specific spaces, and the atmosphere of the big city is captured in a truly immersive experience. Of the slim extras offered, the commentary track by Ferarra (and another, uncredited individual) is a mixed blessing. It's entertaining to hear his takes on the acting, edits, and locations in the film. But more times than not, there is a "gee whiz, look at that" aura, like he's seeing the shots for the first time, or just couldn't care. As a side note, Artisan is taken to task again for poor packaging and blatantly false plot information on the keep case. Almost 80% of what the case says happens in the story does not occur, period. Why they do this is anyone's guess, as is why Ferrara made this movie. While it is an occasionally riveting look at the double life of big money dope dealers, its meandering middle keeps it from being a complete success. Like dress slacks or a gift certificate to a stationary store, 'R Xmas is one seasonal offering that will more than likely fail to satisfy.
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Scales of Justice
• Director's Commentary with Abel Ferarra
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