Who is Charlize Theron to know which of her movies are good or not? During a recent interview in Esquire magazine, the actress had the following to say about Reindeer Games, one of her early films: "That was a bad, bad, bad movie. But even though the movie might suck, I got to work with John Frankenheimer. I wasn't lying to myself -- that's why I did it. I mean, he directed The Manchurian Candidate, which is like the movie of all movies." Okay, let me stop you right there, Charlize. Have you actually seen The Manchurian Candidate? It's a movie where Janet Leigh plays a Chinese workman. Frankenheimer was an artist of the absurd, and sure, Reindeer Games doesn't work on traditional dramatic levels -- you don't care a lick about what happens to any of the characters -- but you can't watch that movie and not know that the director is completely, deliberately trying to screw with your head. Frankenheimer knew exactly what genre conventions he was working with in this film, and he decided to explode them.
In his negative review, Roger Ebert noted that "just a nudge and the movie would fall over into self-parody and maybe work better. But I fear it is essentially serious." Fear not, Roger. This is not a serious movie, but yes, it does require the characters to act serious, because they think they're in a Christmas-themed gangster plot -- how else should they act? For those who haven't had the pleasure, Reindeer Games opens in prison as Rudy (Ben Affleck) is about to be released from prison. His cell mate, Nick, has an ultra-hot girlfriend on the outside -- yeah, right -- and after Nick is stabbed to death, Rudy upon his release decides to tell the girl he is Nick. She won't know the difference. Turns out the girl, played by Charlize, has a crazy criminal brother played by Gary Sinise who has designs on Nick-Rudy. And that's only the beginning. The movie ultimately pulls rug after rug out from under us, becoming more ludicrous in the last thirty minutes than any serious-minded movie in crime picture history.
It wouldn't work without just the right casting, and I'm willing to concede that Frankenheimer just lucked out on that front. First of all, he got Theron, who is a naturally gifted actress and needs to be in order to pull off the movie's absurd third-act shenanigans in which she 'reveals' her true identity to the other characters about three or four times, always with a straight face. As Ebert put it, "I commend her for not just passing a hand up and down in front of her face: smile, frown, smile, frown." Also, Gary Sinise is on hand to do what he does best: play a villain who is not even half as smart as he thinks he is. Snake Eyes is another good film to see him play this kind of part -- a guy who has put together an extravagant plan only to have it foiled by a dullard. In Reindeer Games, Sinise is a trucker who got sick of being a trucker and decided to become a criminal mastermind -- how great is that?
One way that Frankenheimer does back himself into a corner is by having to explain the movie's plot to the audience with several long and convoluted 'speeches at gunpoint' type of situations. There's really no way around this, since you're essentially watching a different movie with different rules every time a character opens their mouth and says 'I'm not who you thought I was, ha ha!' These speeches get a little tiresome and I think I'd have rather been left to figure out the insanity on my own. But for every negative like that, there's also a positive I can point out, like Theron's great swimming pool topless scene or the ludicrous scene in which we learn the secret of the "powwow safe." Reindeer Games is a preposterous movie, and you deserve to know that going in. But if you only approach it in the right frame of mind, you'll find that there are plenty of things worse than a preposterous movie that knows it's preposterous and steers right into that. It's a Christmas movie not to be missed.