Arresting the career downslide he’s been on with misguided efforts like “Blackout” and “New Rose Hotel,” Abel Ferrara again entertains his fascination with the New York drug underworld, this time as the flipside to seemingly respectable family life, in ” ‘R Xmas.” Despite some hazy plot points, the tough, compelling drama comes together quite satisfyingly, standing alongside 1996’s “The Funeral” as perhaps the most controlled and cohesive of Ferrara’s uneven work of recent years. While it lacks the shock impact and hypnotic quality of “Bad Lieutenant,” and exhibits minor commercial muscle, this modest French-financed production serves at least to show that the maverick director is back in form.
Contrasting the dual existence of a young man and wife who appear to be upstanding, generous community members and loving parents in a well-heeled Manhattan neighborhood, but who travel uptown to the Bronx by night to cut, bag and distribute large quantities of heroin for a hefty profit, the film has similarities to the Catherine Zeta-Jones-Steven Bauer storyline in “Traffic.”
Set in 1993, before Rudolph Giuliani’s cleanup measures pushed a large percentage of drugs and crime off New York streets, the story unfolds during a crackdown program led by then-mayor David Dinkins to weed out corrupt cops.
Sniffing after the American dream via one of the only avenues open to them, the drug-trafficking couple — never identified by name — is made up of a woman of Puerto Rican origin (Drea de Matteo) and her Dominican husband (Lillo Brancato Jr.). They are introduced about as far off standard Ferrara grunge turf as is geographically possible — at an Upper Eastside Christmas play with angelic tykes performing while Yuletide tunes tinkle on the soundtrack. After braving the last-minute shopping throng in a vain attempt to secure a wildly popular Party Girl doll for their daughter (Lisa Valens), the couple heads uptown to do business.
Some vague information suggests that their thriving cottage industry may be under threat due to an untrustworthy dealer on the payroll dipping heavily into the supply. But the operation runs generally with clockwork precision as shown in Ferrara’s painstaking, fascinatingly detailed account of the packaging and sales process. The rug is pulled out unexpectedly from under the couple during a trip to pick up the coveted Party Girl from a shady vendor of stolen merchandise. As the woman waits in the car, a thug (Ice-T) appears to inform her of her husband’s kidnapping, giving her 20 minutes to deliver a major cash ransom.
Terrific, tense central section chronicles the woman’s desperate trips back and forth between the aggressive Dominican-hating kidnapper, who threatens to have her husband killed, and her associates and family. She anxiously tries to get cash together, eventually heading to the Bronx h.q. to collect the required sum. Before releasing her husband, the thug extracts a promise from the woman to keep him out of the drug trade.
While it veers toward a moralistic stance at times, the aftermath of the kidnapping deals intelligently and in a realistically cynical way with the man and wife’s dilemma, as they decide between safety and going straight with limited alternative career options, and maintaining a life of crime to finance their present lifestyle. Shot and edited in a sharp, refreshingly unfussy style, the drama is lean and focused, sufficiently gripping to glide over some narrative loose ends and minor story factors that don’t completely gel. Musician Schooly D’s retooled carols and festive season songs ironically underscore the illicit activity portrayed.
Cast effectively keeps dramatic fireworks on a low flame. Brancato makes a warm impression as a perhaps too-trusting family man clearly not quite as savvy as his wife, while Ice-T makes a persuasive tough guy, introducing some intriguing kinks into his confrontations with the woman.
Real standout, however, is de Matteo, a series regular on “The Sopranos,” playing a smart, pragmatic, hard-as-nails platinum blonde. Far from the vulgar caricature she could have been, she’s clearly troubled by the couple’s double life but all too aware of the realities of low income living. The deep love and devotion between the woman and her husband is what gives the story much of its driving momentum, illustrating that the couple that deals together feels together.