The Ref Review
”I suppose you’ll use this drama as a reason to have another affair. I feel sorry for the next deliveryman that comes to this house!” – Lloyd (Kevin Spacey)
One of the great pleasures of cinema is discovering the ‘overlooked gem’, that rare and precious thing that enlivens the heart and soul of a film lover. You know what I talking about. It’s the movie you’ve never heard of before, the one you tune into on the T.V. when there’s nothing better on, or the one you (used to) rent from the video store because all the ones you wanted were out. You hope it’ll pass the time and you end up having a great time. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, of course, it just happens to vastly exceed your expectations. This is just what happened to me when I first came upon a film called The Ref (U.K. title: Hostile Hostages). I knew next to nothing about the movie and found myself enjoying it immensely.
Directed by the late Ted Demme (who made the equally underrated Beautiful Girls), it begins with professional burglar Gus (Leary) attempting to rob the mansion of an eccentric millionaire only to find himself coming face to face with the owner’s guard dog, appropriately named ‘Cannibal’. The alarm goes off and his unreliable sidekick Murray (Richard Bright) speeds away in the getaway car without him. Realising that he has to lay low for a while now the police are enforcing a town curfew, he takes married couple Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (Spacey and Davis) hostage and decides to wait at their house until he can make a clean getaway. Big mistake.
Unfortunately for Gus, the two are having serious marital problems, with Caroline unhappy about the state of their relationship and her life in general and Lloyd sitting miserably but apathetically in the rut he’s carved for himself. Consequently, and much to their kidnapper’s infuriated bewilderment, being held at gunpoint doesn’t deter this couple one iota from constantly arguing and bickering with each other. As Gus deadpans, “I hijacked my fucking parents.” Oh and did I mention that this all takes place on Christmas Eve and that the unhappy couple are expecting the whole family for dinner? This high-maintenance family includes their borderline juvenile delinquent son (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr), Lloyd’s long-suffering but mealy-mouthed brother along with his snobby wife and their two kids, and, most distressingly of all, Lloyd’s mother. Played by Glynis Johns, this insufferable witch-woman can be best summed up by one character’s declaration that “loan sharks are more forgiving than her”. Posing as the couple’s marriage counsellor (don’t ask!), Gus ends up playing referee to the two squabbling hosts as they turn what should have been a normal Xmas family get-together into an all-out, malicious family feud. Larceny is one thing, but our beleaguered anti-hero might well be tempted to add multiple homicides to his list of crimes by the time this night is over.
As I sat down to watch this, I thought I had it pegged as your average sentimental, light-hearted Hollywood farce but was surprised to find that it was actually a fairly dark comedy with a moderate slice of serious melodrama thrown in for good measure. Sparks do fly when Spacey and Davis launch their spiteful verbal attacks at one another, and, often hilarious though their exchanges are, it was a pleasant surprise to see how truthful and believable both actors were in conveying the disappointments and cynical disillusionments of a marriage gone astray. The script by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) and Marie Weiss is sharp and funny, and all the actors involved attack their dialogue with absolute relish. Leary is on terrific form as the foul-mouthed crook, delivering his acerbic wisecracks like a master as his character slowly recognises the Hell that is suburban life. Indeed, his scathing presence also ensures that the prospective mawkishness threatened by such a wretchedly self-obsessed bunch as Lloyd’s family is kept to a minimum. Spacey and Davis are also excellent, with the former delivering the goods in a role not a million miles from his subsequent turn in American Beauty (although the overall tone here is nowhere near as self-consciously smug). Fine work too from the supporting cast, with Johns giving a standout performance as the gruesome mother from Hell, and Raymond J. Barry great as the put-upon local sheriff, constantly hampered by the ineptitude of his own men and sick to death of the town bureaucrats who get in his way.
The film was not a commercial success when it was first released and it’s not hard to see why. The story isn’t exactly original in the first place - God knows there are enough ‘bickering couple’ comedies around - and the film’s darker, more serious moments probably did not sit too well with a mainstream audience expecting a feel-good comedy. Personally, I was disappointed with the film’s conclusion which I thought was too abrupt but what can I say? The Ref contains a gaggle of engaging performances, it’s clever, it mostly avoids the sort of cheap sentimentality that plagues this genre and it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Besides, how many other Christmas movies feature the line: “Gag your grandma”?
It really is inexcusable that studios should continue to release DVDs in the non-anamorphic format but that is unfortunately what has happened here. Touchstone have elected to give The Ref the most basic treatment possible and the disc is as bare-bones as you can get. The video quality is reasonable enough, however, with little sign of any serious print defects and a generally satisfactory image. Black level appears accurate, colours are solidly rendered and flesh tones look spot-on. Although the picture is a little on the soft side and exhibits the occasional compression artefact, this is an acceptable transfer.
Although presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1, the soundtrack features minimal use of the surrounds, with the bulk of the audio action being confined to the front soundstage. As this is a most dialogue-driven movie, this is no great surprise, and both the dialogue and the score sound crystal clear and hiss-free.
Nothing. Nil. Zilch. Zero. Zip. The middle of a doughnut.
[The film is contained on 12 chapters and the disc features dull silent, static menus.]
With a plethora of memorable one-liners and a pleasingly barbed edge, The Ref will surely appeal to anyone who has ever experienced the teeth-grinding, pride-swallowing horror that can be a Christmas family gathering. Consequently, The Ref is best enjoyed around Christmas time with as large an audience as possible. Although this disc is a big disappointment, the cheap retail price makes it an attractive purchase and the film itself is well worth seeing. In three words, an acrid delight.
”Right now I’d rather be in Iraq than in this fuckin’ house.” – Gus (Denis Leary)