Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Thanksgiving’ is a New Holiday Classic


Director: Eli Roth
Writers: Jeff Rendell and Eli Roth
Stars: Patrick Dempsey, Ty Olsson, Gina Gershon

Synopsis: After a Black Friday riot ends in tragedy, a mysterious Thanksgiving-inspired killer terrorizes Plymouth, Massachusetts – the birthplace of the infamous holiday.


The Black Friday scene that opens Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving is already a classic: mindless humans who don’t ask questions but consume product and get excited for the next product await in a flock in front of a store opening early for some sweet, sweet deals. The store opens in ten minutes, but the rage from our consumers grows larger as they wait to be let in and save money on their consumption to benefit the pockets of corporate America. 

The owner of that store, Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman), is excited at the prospect of enriching his pockets at the expense of a society that turns into mindless zombies as soon as deals are laid out. A free waffle maker for the first 100 people who consume? How exciting! However, for Mitch Collins (Ty Olsson), not so much. The store’s general manager has to miss his Thanksgiving dinner to supervise its Black Friday. Only two security guards are positioned to calm down an ever-growing and ever-raging crowd. 

When Thomas’ daughter, Jessica (Nell Verlaque), and her group of friends enter the store by cutting the line and get to spend their money a few minutes before the store opens, bedlam ensues, and what follows is the most scathing indictment of Black Friday ever put on film. Its satire may be on the nose, but Roth turns an already nightmarish situation for underpaid employees and store managers all over America (at first, now the world’s joined in on the madness) into a literal nightmare: the enraged consumers attack the mall with all of their fury, shoving themselves into corners, ripping their hair out, and stomping on themselves, all so they can be the first to get something free

For the first time in his directorial career, Eli Roth has something to say. His previous pieces of work, while heavily inspired by some of the greatest exploitation filmmakers who ever lived, pushed buttons for the sake of pushing buttons. Even his remake of Michael Winner’s Death Wish stripped the nihilism and blunt social commentary from the original movie (until subsequent installments became farcical cartoons that glorified the use of guns to the extreme) into a formless actioner that was highly violent but didn’t do much to examine Paul Kersey’s (Bruce Willis) descent into darkness. 

We had to wait until his adaptation of one of the fake trailers playing in front of Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse for Roth to actually have something interesting to say about the state of our current consumerist society. We are all vultures who knowingly feed into the corporate machine as they continue to profit off our backs while we buy mindless things to fill in some gap in ourselves that will be worth nothing once we pass on from this world. It was already obvious in films like George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, but Roth’s approach to this message, with a penchant for clear and explicit violence, has never felt more timely and urgent. Look at the way we treat one another and the way we behave when we hear the words Black Friday, a “holiday” created by the powers that be to make us fight for things that will ultimately be worth nothing. But since we must obey and consume, the holiday must go on. 

After this incredibly direct and angry cold open where Roth shows audiences how much he’s matured as a filmmaker, transforming a peaceful mall into total purgatory for massive shock and enlightenment, Thanksgiving grinds to a halt as it cuts to a year later. But it’s a welcomed halt as it establishes the main characters still grappling with the effects of a traumatizing event. As preparations for this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations are underway, a killer begins to enact his revenge on the ones responsible for the Black Friday tragedy of last year. Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) is on the case, as he finds out that the killer is specifically targeting Jessica and her friends, tagging them in posts on Instagram with a dinner table with their names written on each chair. 

It’s a race against time to figure out who is doing the murders before more bodies pile up. And while the rest of the movie is far more conventional in its storytelling and even gets far too predictable with its multiple red herrings, Thanksgiving remains largely entertaining. Its core plot is a beat-for-beat re-tread of Wes Craven’s Scream, but when the kills are thoroughly vicious in their execution and creative in their staging, does it really matter? Sure, it’s incredibly easy to guess who the killer is, even when Roth tries to divert attention by making Jessica’s love interests, Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks) and Ryan (Milo Manheim), the alleged suspects, but it’s far too obvious to be obvious if you catch my drift. 

As such, it, unfortunately, loses the momentum that Roth built in its opening scene, but he still has something to say as the town realizes their mistake, which greatly affects the main characters, minus Thomas, who hopes the consuming will resume once morale improves. He also gets some really good performances from his actors, most notably Dempsey, who revels in the camp of Sheriff Newlon and that thick Boston accent selling it. But I was particularly impressed by Addison Rae, who has never had her time to shine on screen in the unwatchable He’s All That. But she’s particularly effective as Gabby, one of Jessica’s best friends. Manheim also impresses, though his arc is truncated near the movie’s latter half when it could’ve blossomed into something far more active than what we have. 

But the real star of the picture is Roth himself, who finally manages to make something worth our time. He showed signs of artistic maturity with the kiddie horror flick The House with a Clock in its Walls. But in Thanksgiving, he finally blends his flair for the grotesque with a poignant social commentary that will always ring true as the years go by. I can absolutely see this film becoming a new holiday classic, solely on its opening scene, finally shedding light on the most horrific day of the year, where we all act like soulless Romerian zombies for those discounts. I get it, but let’s act civilized for once. It’s just a damn PS5. 

Grade: A-

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