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The Ref (1994)

by on 2011/12/19

“Your husband ain’t dead, lady. He’s hiding.”

* * *

The Ref was a bargain bin discovery which rang a distant jingle bell in my mind. Last year when I scanned the net for lists of favourite holiday picks, the title appeared here and there, though I dismissed it. For one, I didn’t already own it and, for two, it didn’t seem festive enough to make the cut. This year, however, is another story, with our “unconventional” approach.

More than slightly reminiscent of Danny De Vito’s War of the Roses, it unites Judy Davis (Barton Fink) and Kevin Spacey (Swimming With Sharks) as the bickering Chasseurs. Caroline and Lloyd are on the brink of destroying their fifteen year marriage, having already ostracized their teenage boy.

Enter Gus (Denis Leary of 1999’s Thomas Crown Affair), a small-time crook engaged in the cliched Last Big Score. When he takes the couple hostage, they give him more trouble than he expected, but he also discovers they share with him the things they don’t tell each other. Everybody finds a little hope and festive healing.

Just a little, mind you.

There is fun to be had in this bleak yuletide comedy. It’s no heavy-handed parable. Most everything that could go wrong for Gus eventually does. It’s great to see an unresolved issue made more complicated, by ineptitude or random accident.

And I enjoyed the nominal subplot where the Chasseurs’ juvenile delinquent son both admires and competes with the career criminal. It reminded me of a similar dynamic in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma.

Yet there were still too many uncertainties to win my full approval. I was never entirely sure of Gus’ motivations. Was he worthy of our sympathy, unwise and out of his depth, or going through the motions, untouchable and entertained? While the argument might be made such ambiguity feeds the art, I couldn’t quite convince myself to believe it here.

I wondered at some apparent loose threads, perhaps the remains of indecisive editing: a subplot involving an inflating bounty, and another following a drunk Santa. Further post-production woes included an oddly eclectic soundtrack veering unsteadily between filler score, jazz, Christmas carols, and a piece of Nineties “World Muzak” uncomfortably close to Enigma.

Much like its antagonist, the movie as a whole comes on strong, and baring teeth. Ultimately, however, they are both good-natured, if a bit mixed up. An appealing premise, and good performances help, but a lack of behind-the-scenes discipline lets The Ref down overall.

* * *

Please Note: The following scene is NSFW (Not Safe For Work)

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

97 minutes

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