Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, co-writer/director Jalmari Helander’s feature debut, effectively ushers in the holiday season with a seemingly limitless cache of delightfully perverse variations on the innate fear of punishment at the heart of the Santa Claus myth. The film’s version of St. Nick is a demon, a primordial, nigh-Lovecraftian creation that lurks in the abyss of children’s minds and seeks to punish them for any infraction that they only think they’ve gotten away with over the course of the year. The central premise of Helander’s playful family adventure is that if people want to really bring Christmas back to its roots, they have to acknowledge the pagan nature of the holiday. There’s no Christ here to back nor any harsh polemics against the commercialization of the sacred day. No, Rare Exports is that rare, self-conscious genre film that not only knows its limitations but also knows exactly what it wants to say and how to say it.
Growing up in the middle of an iceblanketed nowhere village, Pietari (Onni Tommila) is continually overwhelmed by his environment’s pervasive violence and alienation. His gun-toting single father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), arms him with a small rifle on Christmas Eve after setting up a camouflaged pit of make-shift wooden stakes, presumably for wandering reindeer, the main source of Rauno’s income. But for all Pietari knows, Rauno’s trying to protect him from something that will descend on the village the next morning, something unremittingly evil that left footprints outside his window two nights before Christmas.
One of the main joys of Rare Exports is watching Pietari’s dawning sense of recognition guide the film’s preposterous events. At first, Pietari is suspicious because everything going on around him doesn’t seem to add up: a flurry of activity erupts around an archeological dig that Pietari is convinced has uncovered the corpse of the real Santa. Then, after burrowing throw a small library of arcane books on Santa that appear to have all been edited by Aleister Crowley, Pietari understands that the famous fat man is not a benevolent sprite with a taste for gingerbread cookies, but rather a kidnapper with a cookie fetish who is monomaniacally compelled to torture children. If nothing else, Rare Exports’ Santa is the original serial killer.
If people want to really bring Christmas back to its roots, they have to acknowledge the pagan nature of the holiday.
Most of those revelations are expertly unpacked in the film’s crackerjack first 20 minutes. From then on, Helander unpretentiously takes his time in revealing his film’s world and its meaning. For the most part, the film feels like a crackedout Spielberg homage, complete with a distracted, though not quite absent, father figure and a child hero that knows infinitely more than pretty much everyone. Later, right after the naked killer elves start attacking, the film switches gears drastically to assume the pose of a Michael Bay actioner, complete with absurd macho quotes from Pietari and a swaggering helicopter chase scene that resolves with a nod to Armageddon. Helander’s shift to the relatively crass latter style is motivated by the knowledge that everything Santa stood for is a lie, a revelation crystallized when everyone lays eyes on the real Santa. In that sense, the film’s resolve to rehabilitate the spirit of Christmas is admirable, especially because Helander takes the most indirect and unsound route to get there.
>> Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale Directed by Jalmari Helander; at the IFC Center, Runtime: 80 min