Reindeer games Sleighs 'Em

FILM

Reindeer Games

Directed By John Frankenheimer

Starring Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Gary Sinise

Dimension Films

Reindeer Games Sleighs 'Em

By RICHARD HO

CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

I'll be honest. When I first heard about a new Ben Affleck film called Reindeer Games, my initial reaction was: Christmas movie. Keep in mind, I hadn't read the plot summary and this was before I knew that legendary director John Frankenheimer (Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) was at the helm. Given all that, wouldn't you agree that it was an honest reaction? Wouldn't you expect Reindeer Games to be a light-hearted story, filled to the brim with good will and holiday cheer?

A romantic comedy, perhaps?

Then, of course, I read the plot summary and saw John Frankenheimer's name next to "directed by." Thinking back to his previous films, I realized that none of them even came close to falling under the category of "romantic comedy." On the contrary, the director is famous for a long line of dramas and suspense-thrillers, so surely Reindeer Games, billed as another suspense-thriller, would continue the tradition.

If there was any doubt remaining in my mind as I walked into the theater, it was banished forever by the opening scene, which featured the bloody carcass of a dead Santa lying face down in the snow.

Just more proof that you can never judge a movie by its title.

Set in northern Michigan during the holidays, Reindeer Games follows the harrowing chain of events that center around a recently paroled car thief named Rudy (Affleck) who becomes entangled with a beautiful girl named Ashley (Charlize Theron) and her brother Gabriel (Gary Sinise). Gabriel is a disgruntled trucker who plans a casino heist with his buddies on Christmas Eve. He forcefully enlists Rudy, whose experience as a former employee at the casino is vital to the plan's success.

The catch? He's actually going under the name of Nick, his cellmate and best friend in prison. The two were supposed to be released together, but Nick was killed a few days before his parole in a cafeteria food fight. It was Nick who was supposed to hook up with Ashley (they met each other through a prison pen pal program), and it was Nick who was a former employee at the casino. Rudy took on Nick's identity to win the unsuspecting Ashley, but along with the girl came a whole world of trouble.

And that's just the first deceit. Beneath the gloomy skies and desolate snow of winter, the characters slowly unveil an intricate web of lies and betrayal that keeps the audience guessing to the very end. Rudy has to figure out a way to convince his captors that he really has Nick's knowledge (even though he doesn't) while planning a way to escape. It's a dizzying tale of greed and deceit in which no character is free from suspicion. And yes, backs are stabbed left and right.

Frankenheimer proves once again why he's the master of the thriller. His urgent pacing keeps the action flowing and the adrenaline pumping, and his love of tight super-tight close-ups allows the audience to catch every suspicious eyebrow twitch and follow every devious glance. The dead Santa in the opening scene sets the gritty tone that pervades the film, and serves as a less-than-subtle reminder that violence and suspense-thrillers go hand in hand. Fittingly, action abounds throughout the course of the story, culminating in the climactic heist scene at the casino. The grittiness is enhanced by the hostile setting of northern Michigan in the dead of winter--the bitter coldness of the air is a reflection of the bitter coldness within the characters and their motivations. Even so, there's plenty of humor thrown into the script, creating an interesting mix of laughs, shocks and thrills.

These aren't your typical character types. Affleck portrays Rudy as the flawed protagonist--he's the "hero" that the audience roots for, but only because he's the lesser of several evils. In a movie in which first impressions can be deceiving and everybody is morally bankrupt, Rudy is, strangely enough, the honest one of the bunch. All he really wants to do is spend the holidays at home with his family--of course, his plans go awry when he and Ashley fall into the hands of Gabriel. His ability to counter-manipulate the manipulations of his captors illustrates a decent intelligence and his resourcefulness allows him to stay alive. Add to this a wisecracking sense of humor, and you end up with a fairly likable character. Even so, he's hardly a saint. After all, he lies to get in bed with Ashley, the sweet and innocent girl caught in the middle of her brother's machinations. Theron is disarmingly seductive in the role (as usual), using her feminine charms to win Rudy's trust, while Sinise is masterful in his villainous turn as Gabriel. The ruthlessness and cruelty conveyed through Sinise's performance accurately portrays a desparate man at the end of his rope, spurred to extreme measures by frustration and greed.

Expectations? Throw them out the window, because they'll probably turn out wrong. The only thing you can truly expect from Reindeer Games is the unexpected, and saying any more would be giving away too much. This is very much a thriller in the classic sense, in which the strong development of the characters and their relationships drive the plot along its winding path. As any good thriller should, it throws a surprise at the audience every few minutes and introduces doubt at every turn. Can we trust the characters we think we can trust? Who will end up betraying who? Will the heist succeed? Will Rudy make it home alive?

The answers may surprise you. But, after all, guessing is half the fun. A-