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'Thanksgiving' Is Exactly the Movie You Think It Is
For better or worse.
As you might expect from a movie based on a 16-year-old fake trailer, Thanksgiving, is more a concept than it is a fully fleshed-out (pardon the pun) story. Tonally, the latest from director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Knock Knock) is all over the map. Is it an earnest neo-slasher? A broad horror-comedy? A knowing homage to various classic scary movies?
The plot is very much in the grand tradition of the slasher genre, both conceptually and structurally: Set in Plymouth, Massachusetts (yuck), Thanksgiving opens with a tragedy, which the killer then spends the rest of the movie avenging. In this case, that tragedy is a Black Friday sale run amok (yuck yuck), which results in multiple fatalities and at least one life-altering injury. A year later, a dude dressed like a pilgrim, complete with a John Carver mask (yuck yuck yuck), starts going around town murdering people who played a key role in the violently-competitive dash for metsieh.
Be thankful for Appetite for Deconstruction.
Also very much in the grand tradition of the slasher genre: Cheap, flat-looking images, ridiculous gaps in logic, a mystery you’ll likely solve on your own despite the red herrings having red herrings, and bland-but-beautiful young characters who are boring and forgettable pretty much any time they’re not being slaughtered. I kept confusing two of the lead actresses, both because they look alike and because they don’t even really have one-dimensional archetypes to differentiate them (one of them, Addison Rae, is apparently huge on TikTok, so I concede that I may have found her more recognizable if I was twenty years younger). The most memorable character is a sheriff played People’s Sexiest Man Alive, Patrick Dempsey, and that’s because he’s People’s Sexiest Man Alive, Patrick Dempsey, not because his character is interesting or funny or multi-dimensional; his most defining characteristic is a Masshole accent that suggests his dialect coaches were Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch. Gina Gershon is in the movie for like five minutes and I almost forgot about her until I sat down to write this review. The evil gold-digging stepmother is played by an actress named Karen Cliche, for fuck’s sake. I guess Judy Generic and Betty Banal were already booked on other gigs.
Thanksgiving does take quick satirical stabs (sorry sorry sorry) at a variety of more high-minded issues, including class, consumerism, social media, and political correctness. But none of it really amounts to anything; as with his cannibal movie, The Green Inferno, the sense I get is that Roth doesn’t have a coherent ideology so much as he just has a snotty sense of humor. Someone might be able to make an argument that the Black Friday riot at the beginning is a metaphor for January 6 or something, but I don’t really see it. There’s a moment where a character uses Black Sabbath replacing Ozzy Osbourne with Ronnie James Dio as a metaphor for life’s unexpected travails and triumphs, and it’s probably the most profound part of the whole film.
If you really wanna nitpick, there are also some squandered dramatic opportunities. For example, there’s a scene, featured prominently in the trailer, where the killer stabs a girl in the ears with corn holders; she lives, but the film’s sound becomes muted, indicating that she can’t hear anything. Surely, now the killer will have a little sadistic fun with her, and we’ll get a sequence where being deaf is what ultimately leads to her demise, because she can’t hear the killer right behind her or something like that, right? Nope. The corn holder attack is a stand-alone joke. I can’t imagine that neither Roth nor screenwriter Jeff Rendell thought to take the scene in this obvious direction, but I also have no idea why they’d opt not to take the scene in this obvious direction.
On the plus side, although the gags are sometimes too on-the-nose to be funny, a lot of them really land (this is the second week in a row I’ve seen a movie with a great cat joke).
But where Roth really excels, unsurprisingly, is the kills. They are graphic, they are gory, they are hilarious, and they are awesome. None of them are quite Terrifier-level disgusting, but they get pretty close. As a woman sitting behind me astutely observed at one point, “Oh shit! That is FUCKED-UP!!!”
At the risk of sounding like Yogi Berra: If you enjoy movies like Thanksgiving, you will enjoy Thanksgiving. It has all the strengths and weaknesses of its highly-disreputable genre - if you’ve happily sat through the Friday the 13th franchise, you’ve endured characters this boring before, and you’re game to put up with them because you know they’re doomed to die unpleasant deaths in a variety of creative ways that you find entertaining. If we’re judging Thanksgiving purely as a bloodbath, it’s a goddamn masterpiece.
But if you’re expecting something that’s mostly-ironic, or you like your violence to come with some meaning, or you’re looking for something that might someday be taught in film school classes, then Thanksgiving probably isn’t for you. This is an empty movie which requires the patience to sit through a purely one-dimensional love triangle between a rich girl, a brainiac, and a jock, and which rewards that patience only with intestines and bloody stumps and a woman basted, cooked alive, and served like a turkey.
Personally, I had a very nice evening at the cinema.