'R Xmas

2001, Movie, R, 83 mins

Review

'R XMAS
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Assured, glossy and shot through with brittle desperation, pioneering indie filmmaker Abel Ferrara's corrosive Christmas fable is set in the early 1990s, the period that produced his bitterly brilliant KING OF NEW YORK (1990) and BAD LIEUTENANT (1992). As the holidays approach, an unnamed husband and wife (Lillo Brancato, The Sopranos's Drea de Matteo) glide through a series of moneyed holiday rituals: watching their 11-year-old, Lisa (Lisa Valens), in a lavish school production of A Christmas Carol, taking a carriage ride down Fifth Avenue, visiting Santa and trying to find the life-size "Party Girl" doll Lisa so desperately wants. They go home and dress for a night out, tip the doorman as they leave their luxury apartment building and drive off. And then the picture changes. They switch cars, pull up in front of solid but rundown building in Washington Heights, let themselves into a second apartment, change clothes and get down to business. The couple underwrites their Upper East Side lifestyle by packaging and selling "TKO" brand heroin through a trusted network of local dealers, running their business smoothly and keeping it apart from their other world. The system works, despite the usual hassles and competition from other dealers, until that Christmas Eve. The husband goes off to a slightly mysterious daytime meeting with an associate, while the wife buys a black-market Party Girl doll and waits in the car for his return. Instead she's confronted by a stranger (Ice-T) who has her husband's driver's license. He wants money, lots of it and fast; if she doesn't get it her husband is a dead man. Another filmmaker might have turned this story into a conventional thriller, but Ferrara opts for character study instead, peeling away layers of history and persona until the couples' inner lives are laid bare. It's a tribute to Brancato and, especially, de Matteo (neither was Ferrara's first choice — he cast John Leguizamo and Annabella Sciorra, then lost them to scheduling conflicts), that this process is absorbing. The fact that their characters are so fully inhabited — Ferrara was inspired by a real story, though it's been heavily fictionalized — makes the deliberately unresolved conclusion quietly haunting. Cinematographer Ken Kelsch, Ferrara's frequent collaborator, picks up the theme of overlapping lives by layering images within scenes — the ongoing interplay of reflections and shadows is breathtaking — and through slow, shimmering dissolves. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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