Rose bases his screenplay on Leo Tolstoy’s last great work of fiction, “Master and Man,” published in 1895 when Count Tolstoy was 66. What Rose is unable to bring from the Russian author’s story though is its Christian underpinnings and sense of social class.
(I am told a more accurate English translation of the title is “Householder and Laborer.”)
So instead of a prideful, wayward merchant and a hired sledge driver heading off into a snowy winter’s night, where they get helplessly lost, Rose substitutes an obnoxious L.A. businessman (Danny Huston) who hires a car and English driver (Matthew Jacobs) to drive him around Denver during Christmas season in search of foreclosed homes to flip for a quick buck.
The spiritual crises and last-minute religious conversion of the merchant now becomes an existential confrontation with fate in Rose’s contemporary version. Thus Tolstoy’s acutely felt story yields a prosaic film tragedy that may connect with festival audiences but few else.
The businessman’s snobbery and sense of superiority over the driver are made clear enough. The driver is less the old fool of Tolstoy’s imagination than a troubled man, clearly with a drinking problem he is trying to conquer.
While the satire within businessman’s lectures to the driver on the upside of capitalism, as he rationalizes his profiteering from the misfortunes of others, is calibrated a tad too archly, the relationship between the two men, thanks to Rose’s actors, is what keeps the movie going.
In their give-and-take from front seat to back, Rose creates striking character portraits of two men lost emotionally long before they get lost geographically.
In a brief sequence in L.A. as the movie gets underway, Huston’s businessman seems curiously disconnected from his family and life, which appear to be in crisis.
His wife has maxed out the credit cards, which given the hillside home they live in must mean tens of thousands of dollars. A desperate procurement from a local church’s charity fund to finance his venture marks the man as a major sleaze.
Meanwhile the driver has a restraining order against him to keep away from his wife and kids. (This he violates very early in the movie.) You sense he only gets the day-after-Christmas job because no other more reliable driver is available to the reluctant dispatcher.
So the day’s journey from the Denver airport on a crisp but sunny day starts off seemingly with metaphorical purpose. Alas, the incidents become increasingly minor — the examination of a few houses, getting directions at a gas station and a stop for a drink at a wayside saloon where Huston flirts with a pretty bartender — to sustain much interest.
While these do continue to delineate the men’s differences (and similarities), there is an obviousness to this that makes the climax of his moral tale a foregone conclusion.
Also the increasing peril of the nighttime journey into a wilderness with the GPS and cell phone failing seems all too obvious to everyone other than the two characters to evoke much if any sympathy for the men’s plight.
“Boxing Day” marks Rose’s third modern-day update of a Tolstoy short story – all three starring Huston — following “Ivansxtc” and “The Kreutzer Sonata.” I’m not sure what to make of this other than these clearly represent a labor of love by the two men.
Venue: LA Film Festival
Production companies: BFI and Independent in association with Lipsync Productions present an Independent/Giant Door production
Cast: Danny Huston, Matthew Jacobs, Lisa Enos, Jo Farkas, Edie Dakota
Director/screenwriter/editor/director of photography: Bernard Rose
Producers: Luc Roeg, Naomi Despres
Executive producers: Andrew Orr, Michael Robinson
Music: Bernard Rose, Nigel Holland
No rating, 96 minutes