Movie Review: THE REF, 1994

Top Christmas Movie of All-Time

The Ref, 1994
Classic Movie Reviews
Directed by Ted Demme
Starring: Dennis Leary, Kevin Spacey, and Judy Davis
Review by Carey Lewis


A cat burglar is forced to take a bickering, dysfunctional family hostage on Christmas Eve.


Christmas brings out the craziness in everyone as the holiday season becomes more and more festive. There are great family movies to watch during this time that will put you into the yuletide spirit, such as A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street. However, I’ve always been the type to go against the grain, for better or worse, and I quite enjoy my counter-culture programming. The Ref isn’t as counter-culture as say, Black Christmas (one of the all time best horror movies), but it’s not a movie that you can sit down and watch with young children.

The movie starts with Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis respectfully) at a marriage counseling session. Right away from the language that’s used, and the timing, and the vulgarity, you can tell this is a different kind of Christmas movie. It’s pretty clear that their marriage is on shaky ground.

Meanwhile Gus (Dennis Leary) is robbing a rich home. After the botched attempt, his partner, Murray (Richard Bright) fleas the scene, leaving Gus to fend for himself in this upscale Connecticut town. Gus ends up taking Lloyd and Caroline hostage.

The comedy starts right away as Lloyd and Caroline can’t help but bicker with each other, even when being held at gunpoint. Gus is forced to wait at the house until his partner can find and steal a boat, as all the roads are blocked off as the cops scour the town for the robber. But it’s not going to be that easy…

The Chasseur’s son, Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) comes home from Military School, where he’s been sent for being an unruly child, and has been blackmailing one of his teachers. Not only that, but Lloyd’s brother and his family are coming to dinner, along with his despicable mother. To get through this mess, Gus pretends to be the marriage counselor, Dr. Wong. How Leary explains his name to the mother is an example of one of the many great dialogue exchanges through this film:

Mother: Your name is Wong?
Gus: My Mother was Irish.
Mother: And your Father?
Gus: Wasn’t.

During this night, Caroline decides she wants a divorce and gets a little drunk, and the gloves really come off. Gus won’t let Caroline and Lloyd be in separate rooms from him, so they’re forced to confront each other and talk. Or maybe yell. It’s a bit of both. Because they have no escape they’re forced to finally communicate. And communicate they do; and the whole family gets in on it. Gus, who’s the criminal, actually has it together more than anyone else in the room.

The way the family members face each other and stop “acting” in front of each other is hilarious. No subject is taboo, and everyone finally learns how they’re really thought of, and how they feel about the others.

Ted Demme does a great job walking the tightrope in this comedy. Everyone is hilarious, but he manages to keep it from going over the top and becoming a comical farce. Certain elements to the plot are setup, but don’t seem like a setup because they’re funny, which is very important. In too many movies, there’s something near the beginning that happens that you know will come back later to tie the story up, because it seemed to serve no purpose. Well, the setups in The Ref, you think are there because they’re funny, so there’s a satisfaction that comes when you realize later that it was a setup for a payoff later in the film.

Demme also does a great job setting up the differences between the class system which exists in the world, and he manages to do this without being heavy handed about it.

The script by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss is comic gold in the hands of the fine actors in this film. Every character is defined and not alike another in the film. I’m sure most people will recognize some elements of every character in their own family, which is another reason this film is so great. Everyone knows people like these, and chances are, you’re related to some of them!

The Cinematography by Adam Kimmel is always warm, which is important for a film like this. Many people won’t realize this, but the look of this film is part of its heart. The warmness of the picture is the reason why we can find humor in this family’s misery, and why we know things will be better in the end. If it had been cold, or desaturated, we wouldn’t want to laugh, and we’d take the movie in a much more serious tone. There’s nothing flashy about the photography, which is good for this movie.

And then of course there’s the cast, which really makes this picture work. Every character gets to spit out some fantastic dialogue, but they also get their serious moments too. Leary does a great job of restraining himself (if you’ve ever seen his stand-up you’ll know what I mean), but Demme gives him enough room to let fly at the right moments. In this film, before Kevin Spacey was THE Kevin Spacey, you’ll see that he had great acting ability all along. His timing is impeccable and his line delivery is nothing short of perfect. Davis is also great as the hurting wife who feels cornered, who has more than a few jabs to lash out, but also does a fantastic job of exposing her inner turmoil. These three roles are really key as the film is about stripping away the facades until you get to the core of the truth.

So if you want to sit down with the family and get the warm and fuzzy feelings of Christmas, I don’t recommend this movie. But if you want an anti-Christmas movie, and ever wish of telling family members that you only see a couple of times a year what you really think of them, throw this flick into your DVD player. You won’t be disappointed, and you might find a new holiday favorite.


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