This week on “Celluloid as Sacrament,” we will be exploring the themes in the 1994 dark comedy film “The Ref,” starring Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary and Judy Davis.
For those of you just joining us, this film column seeks to answer questions like “What kind of ‘good life’ does this film seek to glorify?” and “What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?”
In “The Ref,” Gus (Leary) is a cat burglar who kidnaps a dysfunctional family after a failed robbery. Husband and wife Lloyd and Caroline (Spacey and Davis) are on the verge of divorce. They do not communicate, they harbor bitter grudges towards each other and are driven further apart by Lloyd’s overbearing, money-grubbing mother, Rose.
When Gus joins the whole family for dinner, he witnesses a spectacle of bitter insults, passive-aggressive rage and hate-ridden backbiting. Gus and the audience are astonished to observe the kind of infighting and bickering taking place in this family. For each person, everything that has gone wrong in their life is the fault of someone else in the family.
In the film’s third act, Gus’s presence and the tension in the family erupts into a difficult scene of scathing honesty. As various members of the family begin to yell over each other, the insults and profanities fly. In this verbal bloodbath, the honest truth manages to come out between different members of the family.
So, what kind of “good life” does this film glorify? Gus, the most neutral person at dinner, is appalled by the dishonesty, bitterness and selfishness displayed by each member of the family. Gus exclaims at one point,
What the hell is wrong with you people!? You’re supposed to be a family! How can you talk to each other like that?
“The Ref” chronicles the family’s journey from profound selfishness to self-sacrificing love. Gus’s presence at dinner finally brings the family’s deep-seated issues to light. Caroline and Lloyd begin to sort out their differences. Lloyd stands up to Rose, and Gus teaches her to quit holding her money over the rest of the family.
I’ve seen loan sharks more forgiving than you,
Gus remarks to her.
Lloyd’s sister-in-law, Connie, begins treating her husband and children better. Meanwhile, Lloyd and Caroline’s son, Jesse, learns a lesson from Gus about the importance of a good attitude towards life and its opportunities.
The film’s vision of the way the world should be is one in which families love and care for each other, instead of backbiting and harboring bitterness. The film displays how the family, and by extension humanity at large, learns to treat each other properly.
Of course, all the necessary qualifications need to be made: the film contains several dozen profanities and occasional sexual references. These elements are not, however, gratuitous. They serve to show the depth of the family’s hatred for each other, which sets up the family’s redemption for an even weightier finale.
“The Ref” can be viewed online, and indeed ought to be. Its sharp, funny script and top-notch acting deliver a rousing filmic experience. Watch “The Ref” for an example of how deep-seated selfishness can affect every area of life, followed by an example of how to trade this selfishness for honest love and care.