Film Review – Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) doesn’t just take what we know of Santa Claus and flips him on his head, it also throws him in the blender, breaks him down, builds him back up, gives him fangs and a mean attitude. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, this Finnish film is unlike your usual holiday movie, unless your usual holiday movie consists of shotguns, violence, and explosions. This is a fun dark comedy that puts a spin on the jolly man in the red suit, and makes him cold, threatening, and dangerous. But at the heart of it all, the film is really about the traditional ideas of Christmas: family, acceptance, and understanding, only mixed in with dead bodies, gore, and kidnapping.
Gone is the Santa from holiday cards and Christmas commercials. We don’t have the rosy cheeks, the hearty laugh, or the bag filled with toys. Heck, the Santa that the main characters run into isn’t even fat. In fact, this Santa is clearly malnourished, with his beard a scraggily dirty grey, his face displaying a twisted soul, and his bones protruding out of his skin. Gone is the lovable personality and friendliness of the Santa we remember as kids. Here, this Santa is described as an evil, lurking demon that stalks children at night, ready to kidnap them if they were ever to be naughty, supported by an army of elves that look more like a hoard of old, naked zombies. Early on, the main character of the film, Pietari (Onni Tommila), reads a book about the truth of Santa, and a detailed drawing shows him boiling a naughty child in a pot. Oh, and don’t even think about smoking or swearing around this guy, because he’ll immediately pounce and take your head off. If there’s one thing to say about jolly St. Nick, it’s that he is one mean old bastard.
But the film isn’t really about Santa, or even about Christmas. Rather, the film revolves around the relationship between Pietari and his father Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen). The first half of the film takes its time to highlight the strain between father and son, with Pietari as a curious, albeit a little mischievous young boy, and Riley as the blue-collar, hardworking, no nonsense father. The film opens with Pietari and his friend witnessing an American drilling company digging into the mountain near their village. Soon after, odd events begin to occur, and through his own investigation, Pietari comes to the conclusion that it can only be Santa that they were digging up, trapped for years under a frozen lake. Riley, of course, doesn’t believe a word of this, and much of their interaction involves the friction they have, one clearly not understanding the other. In probably one of the best scenes of the film, the two have a small Christmas dinner, and the conversation they have about Pietari’s mother, who’s no longer with them, and Pietari’s belief that his father is disappointed in him, really hits a dramatic cord that I was not expecting.
It’s funny to think that the relationship between Pietari and his father really starts to change and develop once Santa is brought in to the picture. Being caught in one of Riley’s hunting traps, Santa is found stark naked, but surprisingly not dying from the frigid snow. Riley, along with two of his friends, try to figure out exactly who this person is, what he wants, and why he was walking around in the harsh weather without any clothes on. But, of course, only the innocence of a child can honestly understand the truth of Santa, and Pietari, in front of his father, soon comes of age, taking the leadership role, telling the men who this person is and what they need to do to survive from the army of elves desperate to save him. The second half of the film works almost like a hostage movie, as the men try to negotiate and deal with the drilling company, one side returning the mythical being, and the other paying up for the dead reindeer that were supposed to feed the village for the winter.
Again, this is a dark, fun movie that is also surprisingly heartfelt. The Finnish landscape plays a major role here, as the snow works like an additional character. It is always there, pouring down on our heroes, surrounding their environment in a harsh, unrelenting white. The film reminds me a lot of The Thing (1982) in its use of snow as a character. The film is funny in how it takes the ridiculousness of its premise and amps it to another level. It uses the basic concepts we know about Santa and manipulates them in very clever ways. I particularly enjoyed the moment when one of the characters used gingerbread men to lure the elves away, or how the director of the drilling company gave handouts to the employees, with rules on how to behave and not be naughty people. As the film progressed, the sheer over-the-top sequences also increased, in a hilarious way. I’m not going to get into too much detail, but the way Pietari uses the children of the village to gain the attention of Santa and the elves is both head-scratchingly crazy and just laugh-out-loud awesome. There are a number of big twists in the film, but the best is the last one. You may be wondering why the title of the film is called Rare Exports, and when that question is answered at the end, it adds a punctuation mark that seems to be from the Twilight Zone, but in its own absurd way, is perfect.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale may go down as one of the classic holiday movies for people that don’t really like classic holiday movies, right alongside the likes of Gremlins (1984) or maybe even Die Hard (1988). One thing is for certain: this is one highly enjoyable film that is entertaining from beginning to end, highlighted by sequences that are funny, tense, and dramatic. If you have a chance to catch this near you, I highly recommend that you do, and bring a bunch of your friends along for the ride. This is one of those movies that needs to be watched by a group of people. You’ll find yourselves smiling and nudging each other, fully aware of the joke behind its “holiday spirit.”
Final Grade: A-