Have audiences become so movie-saturated that every genre has to be turned inside out in order to still be effective?
In the past, Reindeer Games would have been a straight-ahead heist film, an action movie peppered with psychological conflicts and characters who turn out to be different than they initially appeared. Certainly not the series of head-snapping reversals that screenwriter Ehren Kruger concocts, where layer upon layer of betrayals turn his central character into the ultimate patsy and leave audiences sifting through a convoluted con game, wondering why they should care about anything that’s just taken place on-screen.
In Arlington Road, Kruger created a promising scenario about rampant paranoia and homegrown terrorism, but ended with the sort of broadly ironic twist that now passes for story resolution. Reindeer Games is more of the same.
Car thief Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) is serving his final days at a northern Michigan prison, and his cellmate, Nick (James Frain), can talk of nothing but his luscious pen pal, Ashley (Charlize Theron), and the post-release motel tryst they have planned.
But when Rudy is released alone, he sees the beautiful, forlorn Ashley waiting in the snow and makes a split-second decision to impersonate Nick, at least for the holidays (a particularly raw and athletic sex scene soon follows).
He soon realizes he’s made a huge mistake when the pissed-off Gabriel (a reptilian Gary Sinise) shows up with his nefarious crew to claim Ashley (who’s from Detroit, ergo not to be trusted) and kidnap Rudy-Nick to help with an Indian casino robbery on Christmas Day.
Director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) adds a crackling life-or-death reality to a tale whose phoniness isn’t limited to British Columbia standing in for Michigan, while Ben Affleck is particularly good as a whiny, backpedaling excuse maker. But neither can fully redeem Reindeer Games, a cinematic lump of coal delivered by a snarky Santa Claus.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.