Jalmari Helander’s playfully audacious directorial debut, Rare Exports, does such a wonderful, effortless job of recapturing that slightly dangerous, pre-PC reckless streak that made such ’80s-era kid flicks as E.T., The Goonies, and The Monster Squad so distinctive and memorable, it almost makes up for the fact that the movie fails to deliver on the promise made in the brilliant shorts that preceded it, Rare Exports Inc. and Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions. In those previous efforts, Helander transformed a beloved Christmas icon into a feral force of nature that would sooner tear naughty children limb from limb than leave a lump of coal in their stockings. Yet, despite boasting all of the strong stylistic and storytelling traits that made both of Helander’s aforementioned shorts so successful on their own terms, the Rare Exports feature quite sadly omits the very component that should have been its crowning jewel. We can’t be more specific about that omission without spoiling the film, but viewers will likely be left strangely unsatisfied when the screenplay fails to deliver the climax it has been priming us for the whole time -- even though the payoff we do get is admittedly pretty spectacular.
For those who can see past that structural flaw to recognize the creativity and craftsmanship on display, Rare Exports could become a new holiday classic -- especially if its primary function is to pave the road for a franchise. For everyone else, it’s a failure made all the more frustrating by the fact that it comes so close to perfection.
Christmas takes a turn for the grim when a team of Finnish archaeologists unearth a man who appears to be Old St. Nick, only to find that the legends of a jolly, gentle cherub couldn't be further from the truth. Enraged at the multinational corporation that underwrote the excavation for disrupting his village's annual reindeer roundup -- one of the few yearly events that help to keep the local economy afloat -- single father and reindeer hunter Rauno (Jorma Tommila) is shocked when his frail son, Pietari (Onni Tommila), makes a curious connection between the high-profile dig and the story of Father Christmas. The local reindeer herd has been viciously slaughtered, and now all of Pietari's friends are vanishing without a trace. When Pietari looks beyond pop-culture history to unlock the real truth about Santa Claus, he learns that his young friends have every reason to fear this Christmas. By the time Pietari realizes what's happening in his small town, however, it's already too late -- Santa’s helpers are closing in fast, and this year the naughty kids will be running scared.
By constructing a feature-length prequel to his popular short films, Helander creates a much different beast with Rare Exports. For that reason, a whole different set of standards could have applied here, yet by clinging to that strong central concept instead of taking the story in a new direction from the very beginning, Helander essentially sabotages his own film by setting his audience up for what is ultimately a big letdown. Still, it isn’t just the idea that made the Rare Exports shorts so successful, but the execution as well. And the spirited energy so prevalent in the short films very much carries over to the feature; at a time when digital artists use their formidable talents to magically transform government-issue shotguns into harmless walkie-talkies, few filmmakers would have the gall to feature a gun-toting pre-adolescent with a quick trigger finger, and even fewer would pit that fearless child against a herd of rampaging, stark-naked senior citizens armed with melee weapons. The reason Rare Exports manages to work despite being hindered by its Achilles’ heel is the fact that Helander isn’t afraid to push boundaries and break with convention in order to make his film stand apart. Thanks to that affection for audacity, Rare Exports plays far creepier in parts than most might expect -- despite the fact that it hardly contains anything most parents would consider more than mildly objectionable. Helander understands that with just a little tweaking, the mythology surrounding Santa Claus can be twisted into something capable of sending shivers down the spines of impressionable youngsters, and by exploiting those elements he creates an aura of menace that gives the entire film a kind of giddy, nervous tension.
Rare Exports comes damn close to timeless perfection, and for that reason some folks will hold it to a higher standard than your typical killer Santa flick. Helander and company have done such a wonderful job at forming the foundation of a new mythology that we can’t help but want more. And if we can all be good little girls and boys, perhaps we'll get just that.
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- Released: 2010
- Review: Jalmari Helander’s playfully audacious directorial debut, Rare Exports, does such a wonderful, effortless job of recapturing that slightly dangerous, pre-PC reckless streak that made such ’80s-era kid flicks as E.T., The Goonies, and The Monster Squad so d… (more)