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Three Easy Pieces

A very dark holiday

Long-lost Australian flick Wake in Fright is a holiday journey to the heart of darkness. Photo credit: United Artists

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Welcome to Three Easy Pieces, where I look at a particular pocket of pop culture, from its birth, to how it looks today. This time, with the holiday season underway, I'm calling the bluff of every bro who argues that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. What are some other movies that, while they take place during the holidays, don't quite glow with yuletide cheer? I won't necessarily be focusing on horror movies, because the selection of holiday horror is vast. Also, It's a Wonderful Life, with its marathon of unremitting tragedy, should go without saying.

BIRTH: Wake in Fright (1971)
Honorable mention: Trading Places, Black Christmas

In a kinder movie, Wake in Fright's protagonist would learn to loosen up and give in to the simpler pleasures of life, freed from the pretentiousness that's held him back. But this can be an awfully harsh world, and so Wake in Fright instead depicts a delirious journey into the heart of darkness by way of a Christmas vacation in Australia's Outback. Lost for decades, this entry into the Australian New Wave was unearthed and re-released in 2009 to make a whole new generation feel deeply uncomfortable.

Fancy boy schoolteacher John stops off in a small town on his way to Sydney to spend Christmas with his girlfriend. Before he can leave, he loses all of his money by gambling in a game of coin flips. John even remarks on how stupid this game is, before eventually getting drawn in. This experience mirrors everything John does, acting as though he's above these townie rubes even as he's sucked into their lifestyle of endless drinking and frightening violence. Wake in Fright is soaked in toxic masculinity, which is sort of the point: John's descent into the pits of reckless humanity is not by means of seduction so much as by relentless cajoling and escalating horseplay.

A lengthy scene of kangaroo-hunting towards the end of the movie is the one thing that would give anyone pause in recommending it, though the filmmakers have said that the sequence was included to put a spotlight on the senseless brutality of the practice. Even this scene aside, Wake in Fright is admirable in its ability to make everything it shows difficult to stomach. (I swear, no one drinks any water in this film. The amount of beer that's fervently consumed is enough to put anyone off of drinking.) As one character says, "Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do; if you gotta live here, you might as well like it." My instinct would be to run like hell.

DEVELOPMENT: Batman Returns (1992)
Honorable mention: Lethal Weapon, Edward Scissorhands

Does anyone remember that Batman Returns is a Christmas movie? Among a plethora of, let's say, interesting choices that director Tim Burton makes in his psycho-sexual superhero picture, he decides to dress Gotham City in almost mocking holiday garb. Think about Danny DeVito's grotesque Penguin biting that guy's nose, and picture carolers just outside the window. Jokes have been made before about how terrible Halloween must be in Gotham (please, can we have one day without horrifying masks?), but Batman Returns shows that no holiday goes by unscathed in this godforsaken city.

I've written about Batman Returns before, so we'll keep this brief: Batman's "no killing" creed is almost laughably hypothetical; Catwoman blows up a mall by microwaving cans of spray paint; The Penguin can't stop talking about sex; and Christopher Walken, with all the weird energy he brings, is basically the co-lead of this movie ostensibly about Batman. It's wild that Batman Returns was ever released.

TODAY: In Bruges (2008)
Honorable mention: Eyes Wide Shut, The Ice Harvest, Carol

After a job goes terribly wrong, two hitmen (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) are forced to lay low in an idyllic Belgian town as Christmas approaches. From this very basic setup comes In Bruges, one of the best movies of the 2000s, hinged largely on fantastic performances from the two leads and a razor-sharp screenplay from Martin McDonagh, making his feature film-directing debut. McDonagh would go on to gain a wider audience with movies like Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but his strengths were all on perfect display here: moral complexity, David Mamet-esque tough-guy dialogue, pitch-black comedy, and sudden and inventive violence. From one moment to the next, you're never sure just where In Bruges is going, but the pleasure of the movie is in following this unexpected journey.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Body-Swapping Movies. 

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