Screenplay : Ehren Kruger
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Ben Affleck (Rudy), Charlize Theron (Ashley), Gary Sinise (Gabriel), Clarence Williams III (Merlin), Dennis Farina (Jack Bangs), Isaac Hayes (Zook), James Frain (Nick)
After seeing "Reindeer Games," I'm not sure whether to congratulate screenwriter Ehren Kruger or berate him. On the one hand, he has written a script that twists and turns in ways that are impossible to foresee, and therefore the resulting movie always has one more surprise in store. On the other hand, he has written a script that twists and turns in ways that are positively ludicrous, which turns a standard crime plot into a scheme so convoluted and unnecessarily complicated that I can't imagine anyone actually trying to pull it off. When the movie's hero points this out to the bad guy, the bad guy replies, "Don't you think we know what a long shot is?," which sounds more like Kruger self-reflexively preparing for this kind of criticism than a line of meaningful dialogue.
Of course, convoluted long shots seem to be Kruger's specialty. His script for the complex terrorist thriller "Arlington Road" (1999) treaded on similarly logic-defying grounds, but that film worked in the end simply because the film's overall paranoid momentum carried you right over the logic gaps (plus, the ending was so shockingly unexpected that it literally wiped the slate clean). "Reindeer Games" wants to do the same kind of thing, but it never builds the necessary drive to carry us over the edge with it; it moves in stops and starts, which gives you too much time to question the plausibility (unless you're too busy laughing at some of the more inane dialogue).
Ben Affleck stars as Rudy, a car thief finishing up a five-year stint in prison. His roommate, Nick (James Frain), who will get out at the same time Rudy does, has been corresponding via romantic letters with a beautiful pen pal named Ashley (Charlize Theron). Unfortunately, Nick is knifed in prison the day before they are set to get out, and when Rudy is released, he makes the (bad) decision to tell Ashley that he is Nick.
Everything seems to be going well for Rudy--he and Ashley have knock-down, fall-off-the-bed sex, Ashley buys him new clothes, they buy a Christmas tree together--until Ashley's crooked brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise), shows up. It turns out that Nick used to work at the Tomahawk, an Indian casino in the middle of the Michigan wilderness, and Gabriel wants Rudy/Nick to tell him all the details about the casino's layout so he and his gun-running buddies can rob it on Christmas day. Of course, Rudy doesn't know anything about the Tomahawk, yet he realizes that if he doesn't play along and continue pretending to be Nick, Gabrielle will kill him because he will be of no use.
That's about as far as the plot synopsis can go before the story stars its aforementioned twisting and turning. Suffice it to say that not everyone turns out to be completely honest, loyalties shift and change, characters spend large amounts of time and dialogue explaining to each other what has happened, and the climatic robbery of the Tomahawk (which is pulled off with all the robbers wearing Santa suits, indicative of the fact that "Reindeer Games" was originally intended for a Christmas release) turns out to be much more complicated and deadly than originally envisioned.
"Reindeer Games" was directed by John Frankenheimer, who, after an illustrious career making notable thrillers in the '60s and early '70s was banished to making TV movies for years until his recent resurgence with the retro crime thriller "Ronin" (1998). "Reindeer Games" was a logical choice for him as a project, and he brings to the film enough urgency that it doesn't turn out to be completely silly. Frankenheimer does indulge some of his more sadistic impulses, though, and "Reindeer Games" seems a bit more brutal than it needed to be (Affleck alone must get beaten to within an inch of his life at least half a dozen times, not to mention the scene where Gabrielle throws two darts into his chest as punishment for misleading him).
Affleck puts in an effective performance as Rudy, who is certainly a morally compromised character; but, considering the company he keeps, he comes off as an angel (a metaphor which is made almost literal at the end of the film when his giving nature is taken overboard in the film's biggest feel-good contrivance). Affleck has a pleasant, everyday look about him, which works for this role because everyone around him is so exaggerated. Charlize Theron plays a caricatured sexpot masquerading as the nice girl next door with the sunny smile, while Gary Sinise, sporting a beard and stringy long hair, simply snarls, growls, and screams his way through his role as Gabrielle.
Is there anything to recommend about "Reindeer Games"? Not much. It certainly has gumption, as well as a couple of choice lines of dialogue that are bound to become camp classics (the line from which the movie gets its title is so ill-fitting that one has to wonder where Kruger got it from). As a matter of fact, "Reindeer Games" seems always to be verging on the edge of camp, as if it were nudged just a little bit to the left it would be an all-out comedy rather than a thriller. And, because that line between a comedy and a thriller is often so precarious, I have the feeling that, like some of Renny Harlin's great misfires (see either "Cutthroat Island" or "The Long Kiss Goodnight"), after a few years "Reindeer Games" will be appreciated more as the former, rather than the latter.
©2000 James Kendrick