Ethics & Public Policy Center

Reindeer Games

Published in EPPC Online on January 1, 2000



John Frankenheimer’s new movie, Reindeer Games, for which Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road) wrote the screenplay, is in some ways an admirably old-fashioned sort of picture. Or so I am inclined to think of any movie whose soul is its plot, as it generally is in the movies of the greatest directors from Hitchcock to Rohmer. Movies are, or ought to be, about things happening, preferably unexpected things, in such a way as to suggest direction and purpose. But part of what we admire when we admire a movie’s plot is its plausibility. Not only are there exciting things going on, but we can also believe that they are the kinds of things that really might go on in the world as we know it. That’s how we establish the rapport with the characters that used to be thought an essential part of the movie-going experience. What was happening to them might be happening to us.

Postmodern movies de-emphasize this old-fashioned need for plausibility in favor of more artificial excitements. Nowadays, movies don’t have to resemble real life so long as they resemble other movies. This style of movie-making is not too surprising, when you think about it, since the experience of entertainment in our relatively comfortable and untroubled moment in history comprises so great a part of our experience of the world as a whole. The result is often what we might call postmodern noir, which is the genre to which Reindeer Games belongs. These are movies that resemble the old cinematic classics of crime and punishment in every way save that of verisimilitude.

Because plot is everything in this movie, I can only give the set-up, since once things begin happening almost nothing is what it seems. Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck) and Nick Cassidy (James Frain) are cellmates in a prison in Michigan. Rudy specializes in stealing cars while Nick is more of a criminal generalist, but both of them, on the point of release, are planning to go straight. Nick is encouraged in his resolution by the correspondence he has been having with a woman on the outside called Ashley (Charlize Theron). The two of them have fallen in love and written many letters. Nick is besotted with her and is already building his post-jail life around her. Rudy, by contrast, is only looking forward to going home for the Christmas holidays and eating pecan pie.

Just before their time is up, however, the seemingly disastrous happens. Nick is killed in a prison riot by a fellow prisoner, who had been trying to kill Rudy for, as he thought, ratting on him. (Rudy insists it didn’t happen.) Released alone, Rudy sees the beautiful Ashley waiting for Nick, about whose death she has apparently not been told. On an impulse, he introduces himself to her as Nick, since for all their correspondence, and several pictures of her received by him, Nick has apparently neglected to send any picture of himself to her. As Nick read and re-read all of her letters to him in their cell, it is easy for Rudy to step into his shoes.

More remarkably, Rudy and Ashley seem to make at least as happy a couple as Nick and Ashley would have made. Nick is beginning to wonder at his great good fortune when he is seized by Ashley’s criminal brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise) and a gang of crooks who believe that his inside knowledge of an Indian-run gambling casino, revealed in one of his letters to Ashley, will enable them to rob the place. Now Rudy tries to insist that he is Rudy and not Nick and knows nothing of the casino, but he is not believed. “I read your letters, convict. Don’t play no reindeer games with me,” says Gabe.

Ashley expresses extreme displeasure with her brother, but doesn’t seem able to do anything about him. Meanwhile, Rudy is blaming her for betraying him and trying to disown his previously expressed affection for her while she tries to persuade him that there is still a future for their incipient relationship. “A lot of relationships start out this way,” she says to him hopefully. “You know, family problems?” Rudy continues to insist he is not Nick up until the moment when Gabe tells him that, if he is not Nick and willing to help the gang, he knows too much and will have to be murdered. Naturally, in order to stay alive he pretends to be Nick again.

Even up to this point things are fairly improbable, beginning with the fact that a young woman who looks like Charlize Theron would be trolling the penitentiaries for a boyfriend. But from this point onward the twists and turns and switchbacks of the plot become increasingly outlandish. Only Rudy is (more or less) who he seems to be, while everyone else is playing a deep game of false identities, of treachery and betrayal. The cleverness with which these plot turns are kept from us until they cosh us on the back of the neck, particularly in the lightning-paced finale, is what a lot of people want from the movies, and such people will enjoy this one without worrying too much about its implausibility.

But to me the final effect is one of remarkable cynicism. C.S. Lewis says somewhere that to people who “see through” everything, the world is transparent. To see through everything is to see nothing. Postmodern noir is like this. “Trust no one” is its only maxim. It doesn’t mind seeing nothing because it believes in nothing to see. As in postmodern politics, process is everything — in this case the process of movie-making — the ends it serves irrelevant or undiscoverable. All that matters is the next incredible link in the chain of events, not that the chain itself is incredible. I hope that not too many of my readers would want to go to a movie like this.

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