If family dysfunction is as traditional at thanksgiving as turkey, cinematographer-turned-director Adam Newport-Berra’s seasonal grief feast contends that unresolved romantic entanglements dished up in front of a room full of friends can be just explosive as rows with Mum and Dad and the relatives who only come out of the woodwork for a good spread. Though its opening scene places it firmly in the ranks of other downbeat dinner table gatherings, Thanksgiving combines elements of character driven drama with the subtler shadings of a genre piece, slotting just as uncomfortably into the venerable tradition of stealthily unsettling home invasion films.
Alex and Amy (Benjamin Dickinson and Samantha Jacober) have recently moved in together, and this year’s thanksgiving is intended as a celebration of the home life they’re building as a couple and the friends who’ve helped them get there. If the good time vibes are disturbed by a detectable undercurrent of anxiety (Amy is horrified by the idea of them even owning the gravy boat that proud homeowner Alex is asking her about while she’s whispering things out of his earshot), the arrival of Will (Matthew Chastain), a sullen outsider to all in the group but Amy and her oldest friend Kate (Kate Lyn Sheil), completely destroys the harmonious mood, upsetting Alex’s expectations of the evening when his surprise marriage proposal is upstaged by the guy introduced as Amy’s estranged brother, and met with a less than enthusiastic ‘yes’, declared as if under coercion.
Prior to Alex getting down on one knee, a joint is passed around the table, and as the guests take turns saying what they’re most thankful for, a sequence that would otherwise stand as the most agreeable, sentimental thanksgiving dinner ever filmed is ruined by Will’s joyless admission that he’s only thankful for having made it through another year. He says this looking longingly at Amy while not even trying to hide his contempt for Alex. It’s a mood killer doesn’t seem to deter drunken Diana (Meryl Williams) who other than having a thing for grumpy guys with lumberjack beards is no fan of Alex either, blaming him for stealing her best friend away from her. During their awkwardly one-way flirtation, Will looks right through her at Amy, in a way no brother ever would, and when Diana jokingly proposes they partner up to bump him off, the seething jealousy in his eyes is an implicit threat that hangs over the rest of the film.
It’s a tension the unfolding drama wallows in after one of Alex’s friends pulls out of their annual hike in Hudson Valley to go Black Friday shopping with his new wife’s parents, and in a reluctant attempt to clear the air and get him away from Amy, Will is invited in his place. That note of foreboding rings loud and clear as the two of them walk silently through Grand Central Station, the deafening clamor of trains imbued with all the ill-feeling between them. By the time they’re climbing high mountain peaks, the film flirts with Patricia Highsmith thrills, Newport-Berra playing on our fears of Will sending Alex on a long fall with low key suspense that suddenly spikes. Man to man, Will gets even more daring in his stone-faced provocations, making Alex question his belief in love, his relationship and what he wants from it.
As Alex, Benjamin Dickinson (the director of First Winter, shot by Newport-Berra and the 2014 SXSW short Super Sleuths starring Sheil) is an appealingly beleaguered target of uncalled for aggression. With private schoolboy looks and posh specs, he looks like an American Eddie Redmayne and even reads aloud from Brideshead Revisited – that seminal novel of repressed desire and male competition – in an English accent. He makes Alex’s slow-paced character arc painful to watch, and anchors the feeling that two fragile and deeply mismatched individuals have rushed into things, confusing convieniance with companionship.
Quietly focused and intense, Thanksgiving is a brooding tonic for the current saturation of on-screen bromances, a frank and fraught look at figuring out if you’re with who your meant for and how that uncertainty makes a troubled relationship even more difficult to hang on to. Packed with tense stand offs, if a boiler room showdown lit in intense burning oranges doesn’t deliver the lurid, violent climax you might expect, it’s because Newport-Berra is more intent on framing a tumultuous moment in the characters lives, after which nothing is ever the same. Fizzeing the blood but never full resolving itself, it’s an unpleasant memory that’s never allowed to fade.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on July 3, 2014