A subgenre one might call the counter-Christmas movie — generally the preserve of black-hearted satire in the “Bad Santa” vein — gains a suitably sharp-edged but unusually humane new entry in “White Reindeer,” the third and most lucidly realized feature yet from the ever-fascinating Zach Clark. Warmed by Anna Margaret Hollyman’s generous performance as a peppy Virginia estate agent whose elaborate yuletide plans are more than a little spoiled when her husband is shot dead, this complex, compassionate film finds both wicked humor and, less expectedly, transcendent hope in America’s gaudy fixation with Christmas spirit. Trimmed with tinsel and lavish dustings of cocaine, it’s not exactly shooting for holiday-standard status, but will be treasured annually by those who have acquired its curdled-eggnog taste.
Clark’s first two features, “Modern Love Is Automatic” and “Vacation!,” were raggedly punkish but perceptive explorations of sexuality and community among female twentysomethings; knowingly or otherwise, Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” is both thematically and stylistically indebted to the latter. “White Reindeer” shares many of its predecessors’ preoccupations, as well as some of their aesthetic affectations — nobody does wired, dreamy dance sequences quite like Clark. Still, it’s the more grown-up work on several levels, from its keen, open-minded scrutiny of certain Middle American values to the patient composure of Darryl Pittman’s deft digital lensing.
Now in his 30s, around the same age as his putatively straight-laced protagonist Suzanne, Clark has taken to a slyer brand of subversion, one that acknowledges the comfort and even the beauty in crass cultural institutions that have long been default targets for upscale ridicule. Under the tatty cursive of the opening credits, Suzanne is shown bustling purposefully through a crowded mega-mall, buying enough festive supplies to see most families through a decade of seasonal gatherings as canned carols murmur in the background. A wry title card informs us, without further judgment, that it’s 24 days until Christmas.
We assume she’s being set up for a fall, and in a sense, she is: Suzanne returns home to find her husband, a popular TV meteorologist, on the floor with a bullet in his skull, courtesy of passing burglars. But where many films would use such tragedy to loftily put the season’s kitsch commercialism into supposed perspective, “White Reindeer” does quite the opposite, as the trappings of Christmas become the sole structured thing this personable but eerily friendless woman has to depend on in the shapeless fog of mourning.
As the murder investigation dawdles on — the film seems to have as little confidence in its success as Suzanne does, and therefore checks in on it only fleetingly — she seeks another vessel for her tainted surfeit of December goodwill. When her parents prove unsuitable, her next target is Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough, excellent), a young stripper whom Suzanne has learned was sleeping with her husband. The women don’t bond, exactly, but they recognize in each other a certain need for sympathetic company: Suzanne feeds off Fantasia’s coke-fueled party antics, Fantasia off Suzanne’s candy-coated domesticity. Neither is the other’s Christmas angel, but they’ll do until one comes along.
As in “Vacation!,” Clark demonstrates a cockeyed understanding of the strange, variable rhythms of grief, and how its sufferers can oscillate between extreme self-absorption and almost blithe disaffection. “White Reindeer” is a melancholy film, but not necessarily in the ways one might expect a film about a young widow to be: It’s the ways in which Suzanne’s life isn’t visibly altered by her husband’s death that are initially saddening, and then weirdly inspiring. The inevitability of Christmas — emphasized by the film’s countdown structure — and the rigidity of its rituals prove healing constants in an otherwise nightmarish month.
Clark’s focus wavers only occasionally in this effectively compact film: A witty, incisive editor of his own work, he sometimes switches too sharply between modes of arch, deadpan absurdism — familiar from his previous films — and low-key naturalism. Toward the end, however, he makes a brave and welcome push for earnestness, and pulls it off. A simple, stark montage of suburban house exteriors in all their fairy-lit Christmas finery, accompanied by a zesty reading of “A Visit From St. Nicolas” is supremely moving and socially engaged — a reminder of what even the most whip-smart films can achieve by suspending irony for a minute.