The season of good will and bitter family feuds.

A look at the film ‘The Ref’ aka ‘Hostile Hostages’ directed by Ted Demme.

Christmas. Yule. Noel; different names for the same thing. A time of year that is meant to reflect our good will and cheer to those around us. A time when we reunite as families, celebrate with a feast and exchange gifts to show our gratitude to those we hold dear.

Of course, things don’t always fit that idyllic template. Families are complicated things and sometimes it can go a bit wonky, tempers fray, feelings get hurt and that’s if you can even get them together under one roof to begin with.

Still, for a great many people it’s a fun time of year. Personally, I’ve lost a lot of the magic that made it so special when I was a youngster. It’s much like any other bank holiday for me now. Perhaps because of this, or maybe because I have a dark soul, I find that Christmas films can be a rather ghastly affair.

The usual Christmas film is a mushy, heavy on sentiment flick that is designed to jerk the old heartstrings and give you that warm, fuzzy feeling to make the cold winters that little bit more bearable. I’m thinking of things like ‘Miracle on 34th Street’.

The other kind of Christmas film is the mad-cap comedy. These are the ‘Santa Clause’ and ‘Jingle All the Way’ films with as much basis in reality as a Dan Brown story. They serve to make children chuckle and drive the adults deeper into a bottle of wine.

But then you get the Christmas films that break the mould. ‘Die Hard’, when all is said and done, is a Christmas film, though the important thing is that the time of year is completely irrelevant to the story. Had ‘Die Hard’ been set at the turn of the new year or Easter, it would have made no difference.

So let’s bring in another contender; ‘Hostile Hostages’ aka ‘The Ref’. This is a film that could only be set at Christmas time because this is a film that is not about good will and cheer. This is not a film that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside or will trouble your handkerchief. This is a film about a family in crisis. A marriage failing, a delinquent teenager, awful overbearing siblings, a controlling and tyrannical parent and a burglar on the run from police. All themes that do not present themselves in your usual seasonal flick.

It must be said that while it probably doesn’t sound like it, these things all combine to create an intense but wholesome viewing experience that will make you smile, chuckle and laugh from start to end.

The script is as sharp as a razor blade dipped in lemon juice. Every scene with Denis Leary (as the unfortunate burglar) and/or Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis’ (unhappily married couple) are absolute, pure gold. They take the source material and elevate it to levels of brilliance that are difficult to comprehend.

Equally as perfectly cast and just as fantastic to watch perform are the rest of the family. While they may skirt closely to some comedy cliches; the dominant wife, the weak husband, the demonic mother and even the tubby adolescent, they are never treated as cliches by the writers who allow them all the personalities and dialogue to flourish.

The director does a good job to create an atmosphere. He opens the film in a wonderful upbeat way with a beautiful montage of happy families and laughing children enjoying the Christmas spirit. But as the music fades and opening credits come to an end, we hear a distant bell, almost like the chime of a death bell as the camera settles on window sign for a marriage counselor. Cue the ‘happy couple’ and one of the finest performances of Kevin Spacey’s vast catalogue of spectacular acting gigs over the last thirty-or-so years.

The only part of the film that I feel was open to improvement were the scenes with the police officers. They are portrayed as inept and air-headed with as much ability to uphold the law as the cast of ‘Police Academy’. While I understand that they are meant to be naive, inexperienced officers in a peaceful town with very little serious crime, they were so inadequate that they made Wes Craven’s police officers in the original ‘Last House on the Left’ look like TJ Hooker and Robocop.

Fortunately, this weak point is incredibly minor and we forgive it because of the strength of the family scenes. And though I’ve made a big point of the film being full of the anti-happy vibe, I will go as far as to say that it will not leave you feeling totally cold when the end credits roll.

Denis Leary’s burglar is the titular (if watching the American titled version) referee who finds himself trapped in a family war. As the only outsider who can tell it as he sees it, he takes every opportunity to do so and eventually manages to help people to see the error of their ways.

The director himself has admitted to caving in to popular pressure and changing the ending of the film to end on a higher and happier note than he originally intended. While it is a decision he now regrets – and I can understand why given that crime should not pay and people should ultimately be responsible for their choices whatever the end result – it at least makes the film a little more accessible to a wider audience, especially those who demand good will and cheer from their festive films.

This is a highly watchable film and should factor very highly on anyone’s viewing list. It may be a Christmas film, but does not only need to be watched in December. Any chance you find yourself with the ability to check out this title should be taken without hesitation.

My only note of caution is that the language can be quite fruity. Anyone who is offended by strong language may be a little perturbed, though I would urge you to consider trying to watch it anyway. While we’re not talking about Mike Reid levels of vulgarity, not even close!, the swearing is sometimes borderline unnecessary, even if it does serve to highlight the frustrations of the people trapped in their respective seasonal hells.

So continue to watch your warm cosy films and your madcap comedies, enjoy the things that are familiar and that you know work for you. And then, even if just for one night, kick back with a group of friends or family, switch on your sense of humour and press play on ‘Hostile Hostages’ or ‘The Ref’ or whatever bloody title it ended up with when you got your hands on it.

Trust me. It’s different, it’s funny, it’s cutting…

It’s the only Christmas film I’ll be deliberately making an effort to watch this year.

A reason why you should watch it: Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary bouncing off each other for an hour and a half with one of the best scripts ever written.

A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: You don’t appreciate fruity language.

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