Scenic RoutesIn Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.  

Every year at this time, I like to devote a column to a scene from a Christmas movie. In the past, I’ve written about It’s A Wonderful Life, Bad Santa, Meet Me In St. Louis (which introduced the song “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”), and others. This year, however, rather than comb through lists of Yuletide cinema, I decided to just close my eyes and see what image popped into my head. What I got was Timothy Olyphant sitting shirtless in a Santa hat, which was not what I had expected.

Do people still watch Go anymore? It feels like a movie that never quite made it out of the ’90s, even though it was released in the final year of that decade; I can’t remember the last time anyone brought it up in conversation. Both director Doug Liman (who had previously made only the low-budget Swingers) and then-novice screenwriter John August have gone on to major Hollywood success, and neither man’s career feels in any way like a natural extension of this movie; Liman moved on to Jason Bourne and Tom Cruise, while August formed a regular working relationship with Tim Burton. That makes Go feel even more like a calling-card effort than it did at the time, when it was widely perceived as Tarantino lite.

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Nonetheless, I retain a lot of affection for this goofy, energetic triptych… and especially for the first of its three stories, in which a young woman named Ronna (Sarah Polley), who’s on the verge of being evicted from her apartment, tries to come up with the rent money by muscling in on a friend’s drug deal. This leads her to an actual dealer, Todd, played by Olyphant. I’d previously seen Olyphant in Scream 2, but that wasn’t really the best showcase for his talent—Kevin Williamson’s self-consciously florid dialogue doesn’t roll naturally off of many tongues. Todd the drug dealer provided him with an opportunity to channel his live-wire charisma into a more restrained, genuinely menacing form. And while few people think of Go as a Christmas movie, the character’s disarming no shirt plus Santa hat combo has somehow made a more lasting impression on me than any image from, say, Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night. Take a look:

The first impression of Todd, even before he’s seen, is silence. Simply not responding to someone can be a weapon, and August manages to create a sense of unease right off the bat by inserting a long, vaguely hostile pause between Ronna asking if she can come up and the buzzer finally permitting her entry. I was curious enough about whether this beat was scripted or improvised to dig up the shooting script online, and August did in fact write it. In fact, even the moment when Ronna looks back at the car while she waits for Todd to reply is in the script. On the other hand, it’s probably safe to say that Polley—a superb actor whose subsequent transition into directing (Stories We Tell, Take This Waltz) has deprived the world of many potentially great performances—came up with the way that Ronna twitches her shoulders from side to side during this pause. It’s a nervous tic that contrasts nicely with the up and down motion of her jaws as she chews gum; the movement is barely even perceptible until she suddenly stands still, worried.

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Liman introduces Massive Attack’s “Angel” (which had come out only the year before) on the soundtrack before Ronna even gets up to Todd’s apartment. The song’s undulating beat has a distinctly druggy feel that’s perfect for the scene, but it’s not immediately clear that the music is diegetic, i.e., that Todd himself is listening to it. (Go is old enough, though, that Todd’s component stereo system is visible in the background, complete with LED equalizer display. In fact, the boxes that his Bose speakers came in are also visible, as if he bought them yesterday. I wonder how many twentysomethings still have a setup like that?) When he suddenly grabs the remote and cranks “Angel” up to 11, the tension magnifies accordingly. It’s probably more immediately obvious today than it was in 1999 that Todd is checking to make sure Ronna isn’t wearing a wire, as there have been numerous variations on this moment since; at the time, I recall being initially unsure whether he was demanding sex from her as payment. Either way, it’s hard not to empathize with Ronna, who looks distressingly vulnerable as she reluctantly stands there in her bra, while the overwhelming volume of the music makes Massive Attack live up to its name.

It’s the Santa hat, though, that truly makes this scene work. That detail, too, comes from August’s script, and it’s remarkably specific: “In a sneak attack, [the woman] shoves a Santa’s hat down to his ears. He bats the white pom out of his eyes.” The screenplay comes from August’s website, so I assume this is actually what he wrote and not merely a transcript of the completed film. (Also supporting that hypothesis: The woman does forcefully shove the hat down to Todd’s ears, but he gets the pom out of his eyes by turning the hat sideways rather than by batting it away.) In any case, the visual incongruity—a deeply suspicious and potentially violent drug dealer terrorizing a young woman while wearing only a Santa hat above the waist (his lack of a shirt is also specified)—is such an essential aspect of the scene that it was present from its very conception, rather than being a choice made by the director and/or the costume designer. Making a villain look slightly ridiculous somehow invariably also makes him/her look even more threatening. It’s as if they’re advertising just how few fucks they have to give. “I don’t need to look scary—I am scary.”

The one thing about this scene that I’ve never quite understood is how quickly Todd’s suspicion seems to dissipate. Though a first-time viewer doesn’t yet know it (and neither does Ronna), Todd is right to be wary—the number of hits requested, 20, is not a coincidence, and this deal is an attempt to bust him, engineered by characters whose true motives aren’t revealed until Go’s final story. He sniffs that out, yet he then immediately walks into the kitchen and retrieves his stash, without any further interrogation. Presumably, the fact that Ronna isn’t wearing a wire reassures him… except he doesn’t look reassured. It’s somewhat sloppy writing, really, and Olyphant, who was still a bit green at this point in his career, doesn’t sell the transition as well as he might have. In the end, though, that doesn’t really matter. Between the odd wardrobe choices and the too-loud music, a toxic atmosphere has been well established; when Ronna talks her friend Claire (Katie Holmes) into serving as living collateral for the missing hundred bucks, the transaction does not inspire confidence in Claire’s safety. Sometimes, the disjunction between jolly and sinister is all that’s required.

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