Nothing puts the damper on the holidays like coming home with a Christmas tree and finding your husband’s brains splattered on the living room rug. Writer-director Zach Clark doesn’t rise much above that level of subtlety in his lampoon of the phony good will and soulless commercialism of the Yuletide season. Luckily, he has a cast that elevates the puerility into genuine pathos and absurdity.
Most of the credit goes to Anna Margaret Hollyman, who plays Suzanne, the bland real estate agent who makes the grisly discovery. In a deadpan performance, she combines the saccharine submissiveness of a Stepford wife with Buster Keaton’s blank acceptance of an absurd universe. Despite her shock, her belief in the ultimate benevolence of the world, as epitomized by the holiday’s message of comfort and joy, persists. But further disillusionments follow. Her parents (Yvonne and Leo Erickson), after offering her consolation, announce that they are getting divorced. One of her husband’s friends (Nathan Williams) tearfully confesses to Suzanne that her idealized spouse hid a dark side. And the model husband and wife (“Drinking Buddies” director Joe Swanberg and Lydia Hyslop), to whom Suzanne just sold the house down the street, turn out to have kinks in their cables, too.
As all of her certainties unravel, Suzanne decides that, since everyone else is apparently doing it, debauchery might be the way to go. She experiments with cocaine, booze, online shopping, and on-site shoplifting. She joins fellow bad girls in frantic nightclubbing depicted in stroboscopic montages with pounding punk music. Autumn (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough, bringing nuance to a stereotype), a stripper whose real name is Fantasia, serves as Suzanne’s halfhearted guide through a realm of mindless indulgence, a quest that brings Suzanne to Fantasia’s middle-class home in a suburb much like the one Suzanne is trying to escape. Then, like a grimmer version of Catherine Deneuve’s bourgeois naïf in “Belle de Jour” (1967), Suzanne descends into a sexual demimonde where, blindfolded and servicing two men at once, she wonders what happened to the magic she lost when she realized that there was no Santa Claus.
Though his screenplay tries too hard for laughs, Clark wisely takes a low-key approach in his direction, matching Hollyman’s bittersweet, minimalist performance, and by so doing he bares some of the cutting edge underlying his broad satire. While he succumbs at times to garish editing with Suzanne’s drug-addled benders, for the most part Clark employs longer takes, allowing scenes to develop, or uses slow tracking shots and pans that end in a visual punch line. On display are the makings of an archly sardonic filmmaker, ruefully puncturing the illusions of a soulless society. Clark just needs to realize that, no matter how often he tries, he won’t get laughs out of a tiki mask, or a CD of Hawaiian Christmas carols, or the crass Christmas lawn ornament of the title.Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.