Thanksgiving is, in theory if not in practice, a time when families come together and celebrate the ties that bind. For some, however, those ties serve to keep one “captive, bound and double-chained,” to quote ol’ Jacob Marley (is it too early for Christmas?). Here are a few cinematic Thanksgiving celebrations that are more combative than “traditional.”
It’s hard to imagine a role more perfectly suited for Parker Posey‘s particular sexy weirdo-hipster persona than Jackie-O in The House of Yes. Jackie is completely cuckoo, and it’s so crazy hot — she’s obsessed with the former First Lady who shares her name and gets turned on by recreations of the Kennedy assassination. She also used to have sex with her brother, Marty (Josh Hamilton), who managed to escape all this madness and move to New York City — he’s now come home for Thanksgiving, accompanied by his girl-next-door fiancee, Lesly (Tori Spelling), who ends up getting involved with the siblings’ equally messed-up younger brother, Anthony (Freddie Prinze, Jr.). Meanwhile, clueless Mom (Genevieve Bujold) is just worried about the turkey — or is she? Based on a stage play (how could it not be?) by Wendy MacLeod, The House of Yes came out at the perfect time — none of this precious lunacy would fly today, but back in 1997, Hollywood types were shelling out money for “quirky” stuff like this, eager to get on the ultra-hip “indie movie” bandwagon. A Thanksgiving classic for Parker fans, theatre types, ’90s nostalgia-seekers and those who want absolutely nothing to do with their families.
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s another sappy-sweet John Hughes outing that still manages to sneak in some inspired moments of subversiveness. Ed O’Neill, riding high with Married With Children at the time (1991), plays Dutch Dooley, your typical lovable John Hughes slob, a variation on John Candy’s role in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (another Thanksgiving tale) and John Belushi’s in Curly Sue. As a way to get closer to his new girlfriend (JoBeth Williams), Dutch offers to drive to Georgia and pick up her estranged son, Doyle (Ethan Embry, credited as Ethan Randall) and drive him home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Doyle is an elitist snob, much like his father (Christopher MacDonald), but a road trip with dear old Dutch might be just the thing to get the kid to lighten up — and to get Dutch himself to grow up a little. It’s an age-old tale, but an occasionally charming one, managing to get a lot of mileage from the great chemistry between O’Neill and Embry, who would go on to play cop partners over twelve years later in the rebooted Dragnet series. Directed by Peter Faiman, whose only other feature directing credit is Crocodile Dundee.
Director Arthur Penn followed up Bonnie and Clyde with a film that couldn’t be further in tone, content or structure from that crime classic, an adaptation (of sorts) of the 1967 folk song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. A surreal fable that’s one great big anti-Vietnam War statement, Alice’s Restaurant follows Guthrie himself, who’s managed to avoid the draft by attending college in Montana but ends up hitchhiking back East when he gets kicked out for being a hippie; he’s soon reunited with his friends Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick), two free spirits who live in an old church. What follows is a strange Thanksgiving celebration that ends with being unable to properly dispose of several months worth of garbage at the local dump, which is closed for the holiday — leaving the trash at the bottom of a ravine (where someone else had left their trash as well — it sort of makes sense if you know the song) starts a domino effect of life-changing events for everyone involved. They definitely don’t make them like this anymore, and while Alice’s Restaurant is now inevitably dated, it remains for many one of the best cinematic examinations of ’60s America — and it’s certainly one of the most oddly endearing, man.
“Gobble gobble, motherfu**er!” Movies like ThanksKilling were the reason Netflix Instant was invented, so sit down and dig in. “There’s no such thing as an evil turkey,” says one of five hapless college students who suddenly find themselves stalked by a foul-mouthed, revenge-seeking Thanksgiving turkey from hell, the result of some sort of ancient Native American curse that came from being wronged by a pilgrim. Billed as “The Ultimate Low Budget Experience,” ThanksKilling stands head and shoulders above most of its DIY B-movie kin due to the sense of glee with which the filmmakers have brought their ridiculous vision to life — there’s true joy in moviemaking going on here, as well as a genuine sense of community, as evidenced by the extremely informative and interactive website where you can even put together your own “Non-Director’s Cut” of the film. Memorable highlights include a rather harrowing turkey rape scene (really) and a poor doomed bunny flying through the air and landing in the kids’ campfire.
Brokeback Mountain probably wouldn’t ever come to mind if you were asked to think of “Thanksgiving movies,” though you may have forgotten that Ang Lee’s heartwrenching portrait of the impossible love between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) features not one but two Thanksgiving scenes, both of which contain important turning points in the individual journeys (and, some would say, the downward spirals) of the two protagonists. In the first, Ennis is confronted at dinner by his ex-wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), who accuses him of “being physical” with Jack (we’re putting it a lot nicer than she does), spewing forth her homophobic rhetoric in front of their children and her new husband as she effectively ruins the holiday for everyone. In the second, Jack tells off his macho father-in-law, a seemingly out-of-nowhere attack that creates all sorts of Turkey Day tension. Ang Lee obviously has something against Thanksgiving — his dark examination of ’70s suburbia and the breakdown of the American nuclear family, The Ice Storm, also took place over the holiday weekend (and someone died in that one, too).