Bright Wall/Dark Room.
3 years ago
Christmas Week: The Ref (1994)


by Erica U.

The Ref
is no place for idealists. 
If It’s a Wonderful Life was crafted for holiday cheer - cozy as fleece, warmed with the scent of redemption and mulled spices - watching The Ref in December is like cuddling with a corpse.  
It’s hard to get comfortable.  
There’s too much of our own worst selves. No wholly good or dismissively evil characters, no George Bailey and no Mr. Potter.  

Where are our sides to take, our painless epiphanies, our straight roads home? All our reassuring Christmas clichés have been scrooged away. 
Even worse, it is not even a film about remembering our good fortunes. Not really.  
It’s a story about people who appear to have it all – but have actually been hardened and buried away from the thing that matters most: Each other. It’s not that these characters are ungrateful, it’s that they’re actually mourning the same losses and disappointments and betrayals that we endure, that our parents endured. This is life.  

The Ref is a showcase of couples and families who have learned to withhold the tenderness and respect, the affection and support, the honesty and love that make relationships worth having; a cautionary tale about the barren, materialistic machinations that remain. 
Merry Christmas! 
All that said, in the end, this is probably the most complicated and forgiving holiday movie I know. Which is quite a feat for a dark comedy. What I love about this film is that it offers holiday hope for the pragmatic. Ok, for the broken. If it fails the sentimental, it steps up and fulfills those who are old enough and regretful enough to need more than a fairy tale. Those of us who are sorry and well intended enough to do better next time, while still recognizing that real life doesn’t offer a lot of giant, red bow endings.

So here is the premise of our trenchant holiday film: Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) are miserable in their marriage. They have a miserable, insubordinate, conniving son in military school. And miserable extended family members en route for Christmas Eve dinner.

We drop into their misery with both feet, parachuting into Lloyd and Caroline’s terse marriage counseling session, which feels less about catharsis and more about finding new arenas in which to battle. 
Quickly, Caroline details for their therapist Lloyd’s coldness. How he is beholden to his mother who finances their life, inept and withholding as a lover, relentlessly critical as a father. 
Lloyd pulls his overused but effective Get Out of Jail Free Card: What does any of that matter in light of Caroline’s adultery? 

At the same time in a less combative part of town, a robbery is attempted by Gus (Dennis Leary) and foiled by the booby-traps of the rich and eccentric.  Gus escapes on foot after his skittish driver flees and encounters Caroline and Lloyd at one of those smug and tiny artisan grocery stores.  

With prominent citizens on the warpath after the robbery, the affluent town is under lockdown. There are check points and vehicle stops on every roadway and a 10 pm curfew with home searches to follow. Gus takes Caroline and Lloyd hostage at gun point, and forces them to smuggle him into the safety of their home. 

Well, Lloyd’s mother’s home if you really want to know. Caroline is all too happy to tell you. 

As the holiday night unspools, Lloyd and Caroline bicker with fearless gusto even as they are tied up and threatened.  They argue about Caroline’s affair. And about the loan Lloyd took from his mother. How he mortgaged their autonomy and how she bankrupted their marriage. How they both fucked up and forgot their son.   

Later in the evening, said son Jesse returns from military school, where he has used scandalous pictures to blackmail his commanders for thousands of dollars. Which, we learn, he plans to use to run away from his unhappy home. Lloyd’s unbearable mother, acquiescent brother and dictatorial sister-in-law descend on the house next, bringing their own quarrels, dysfunctions and browbeaten children. 

If Lloyd and Caroline are caricatures of an estranged couple, they are precise enough to resonate. Even as you search for Advil and refill your wine glass to cope with their vicious squalls, you recognize your own worst days. 

Most of us know these nights, even if we’ve never gone quite this far around the bend. These familiar sentences that you launch, knowing even as they strut out of your mouth, that you have gone too far. That you’ve aimed for the softest Achilles target. And struck. 
Did you ever have a fight and clench up instantly for the words you have spoken? For knowing that you’ve just said that one unthinkable thought – that wounding, vicious, secretly feared truth that he will never unhear? The Ref is built on those mistakes.

But there’s a moment in the movie when Lloyd and Caroline begin to slide around to the same side of the table. If life has polarized them, this advent event rejoins them. First, as they fight against and threaten Gus and later as they opt to help him evade detection by their family and the police.

There’s a terrific scene where Gus has tied the couple together and left them on the bed. Caroline begins struggling to loosen herself and Lloyd is unexpectedly aroused. I so get this - this miracle of remembering how to be attracted to and aroused by someone to whom you have grown entirely cold (if even just for the duration of a fight). That blessed old recollection and its natural inquisitive conclusion: What if it could be like that again? Watching Caroline realize that at least part of Lloyd wants her for the first time in forever, and seeing Lloyd smirk and admit as much to this women he purports to loathe?  

Now this is holiday redemption! 
But there are so many false starts still. So many old wounds like thickets…it’s almost impossible to navigate your way back to decency and affection with so much emotional shrapnel in the way. So many ways we’ve hurt each other.  One step forward and then Caroline accidentally tells Gus about their failed restaurant and Lloyd’s best tender efforts collapse again. 

Lloyd is angry in the way men are when their wives remind them daily how they have failed.

Lloyd has long since retreated from this refrain to his own depths and frozen over. Connecticut in winter suits them. You picture Lloyd underwater, drifted and guarded under ten years of ice.  
Caroline says being married to Lloyd is like living with the dead, but that’s not it; that might be more bearable. The problem is that Caroline can see the motions Lloyd goes through - swimming silently to work at his mother’s antique store and home to light the rooms of their tastefully appointed loaner house. He’s still there, just not for her. You can’t reach a frozen man. 

The irony in these domestic eviscerations is that we “wives”, Our Ladies of Perpetual Disappointment, harangue these numbed men because we’re panicked. And really, perhaps words are all we have. So we hurl them at you, hoping to break you from this cold repose. Hope to reawaken some semblance of the men we once knew. But it’s not working. Not for Caroline and Lloyd and not for most of us who have mimicked their tactics.

The Ref is a holiday film for those of us who have been in the relationship where we said the worst things because we could not say what we really meant instead. That we were scared, maybe, but not out of love. It’s for every one of us who has concocted and hurled the most deplorable things we could say to each other. The things you don’t ever entirely take back. The things you’d be horrified to have overheard by anyone not in this two-man domestic battle. 


It’s for all of us who know the worst we are capable of…and still hope that we might be able to try again. To go back to the start and not deny or dismiss the battles we’ve been through…but maybe just hold hands and walk through it all again, this time together. Forgiving each other, forgiving our selves. Believing in a miraculous thaw.

The Ref is billed as a comedy and it is very funny, at times. The dialogue is quick and lean as a whippet and you can’t help but love the camaraderie that begins to grow between Gus and the family.   

But what you end up remembering is not the laughs but how Gus set them free. They needed to be captive - stolen from their nasty routines, given a reason to stand up to Lloyd’s mother or step out of the martyrdom that has been holding them back. They needed perspective maybe, or a new foil to fight.  

I guess the thing I love about this movie – and ok, maybe I am the sentimentalist for whom it is not intended – is that their change of perspective comes before it’s too late. It comes in time for Christmas, which is charming but not what I mean. 

What I mean is this: Understanding where you really stood in the battlefield of a relationship is usually a postmortem event. Years, maybe decades later, the twinge of shame or thud of responsibility lands and you get it. You get the merit of what they were always trying to tell you and you wished you’d shut up and let them really talk. Or you finally understand that they were just human. That everything you expected them – demanded them – to be wasn’t their job. You didn’t leave them because they were inadequate, as you made sure they knew at the time. Maybe you left them because you were, back then.

I’ll never stop marveling at how we give ourselves permission to be our worst to those we most love and need.  

The beauty of The Ref is that it leads you home. Its gift is a reminder that we’re capable of being our best selves again. And that maybe the people we love haven’t given up on us yet.

Erica U. writes, works in non-profit development, and plans travels from Minneapolis. She tumbls here.

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