Under the Radar: Movies You May Have Missed—The Ref (1994)

As the poet once said: it's a hard knock life.

For Gus (Denis Leary), Christmas is an especially trying time. His latest job is a bust. He's had a nasty run-in with a rather toothy dog. His boozy business partner Murray (Richard Bright) vamoosed and left him up the proverbial creek without a paddle (or a van).

Oh, and every cop in town is looking for him.

See, Gus is a cat burglar. The good ol' American Dream ain't what it used to be, and after being disappointed by life, he's just making the best of it. This gig was supposed to be the last, the big score, the job that would allow him to finally retire his safe-cracking skills for good. Instead, he finds himself bleeding, reeking of cat pee, and in a real bind.

How to escape town before the city-wide manhunt closes in on him like a noose? The answer seems simple enough: just take a hostage or two, steal their car, and get out while the getting's good. 

Unfortunately for Gus, he picks the worst possible hostages: Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) Chasseur. The bickering pair were just heading home from their weekly marriage therapy session—which has yet to have any sort of positive effect—when Gus singles them out.

GUS: “From now on, the only person who gets to yell is me. Why? Because I have a gun. People with guns get to do whatever they want. Married people without guns—for instance, you—DO NOT get to yell. Why? NO GUNS! No guns, no yelling. See? Simple little equation.”

Now, our already-frustrated thief finds himself saddled with a couple that make the Lockhorns look loving. After hearing the cops have set up checkpoints on every road out of town, Gus has to think on the fly and decides it's best if they all head back to the Chasseur house so he can contact Murray and lay low for a bit.

Too bad the rest of the cantankerous Chasseur clan is soon to descend for the traditional family Christmas dinner…

With only so much rope and bungee cords to go around, Gus coerces Caroline and Lloyd to present him as their marriage counselor, Dr. Wong, in an attempt to get through the festivities quickly. But with the boiling familial hostilities, a delinquent son who's been blackmailing his superior officer at the military academy, and the door-to-door search by the police, things aren't looking good.

Will Gus flee to steal another day? Is Caroline and Lloyd's marriage truly over? Will the Chasseurs all live to see the end of the dinner, or will Gus finally snap and plug Lloyd's harpy of a mother, Rose (Glynis Johns), before anyone can enjoy the lemon pie and coffee?

GUS: “What is the matter with you? I thought mothers were sweet and nice and patient! I know loan sharks who are more forgiving than you. Your husband ain't dead, lady. He's hiding.”

The Ref is exactly the sort of holiday film I'm naturally drawn to. Rife with gallows humor and profanity, it shines an unflinching spotlight on the terrible, much more realistic side of family gatherings rather than indulging in saccharine feel-good schmaltz. 

It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street may make you all warm and gooey inside—for a few minutes, anyway—but there's a helluva lot more truth to be found underpinning the witty dialogue and physical comedy of The Ref. 

Gus rails against the ennui of the rich while lamenting his own unfulfilling life as a criminal, and a lot of it rings true. But then, Lloyd counters with his own perspective, arguing that having money doesn't automatically translate to satisfaction and genuine happiness, that his privileged life has hardly been a bed of roses, and you understand him, too.

Son Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) is a blackmailing, opportunistic little slimeball, yes; but he's also the product of his parents' incredibly unhappy marriage and is willing to do nearly anything to escape his toxic family. 

When Gus becomes, albeit unwillingly, a referee in the Chasseur clash, his no-nonsense words and cut-through-the-bullshit brusqueness proves to be just what Lloyd and Caroline have always needed. We see genuine growth and change playing out during the heated outbursts and arguments. It's mean-spirited and a little unpleasant, but it has a note of sincerity about it—one you rarely hear in more traditional Christmas fare.

An angel doesn't get its wings in this movie, nor does a Scrooge learn the true meaning of the season. The Ref's climax, however, is better than any of that: the entire family drops the last shreds of politeness and airs all of their grievances in one of the more cathartic sequences you could hope for.

LLOYD: “You know what, Mom? You know what I'm going to get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.”

Originally—and inexplicably—released in March, it's no wonder that The Ref flew under the radar and remains a generally unknown gem. Not even the bevy of big names attached to it has rescued it from obscurity: besides Leary, Spacey, and Glynis Johns, there's also Christine Baranski as the sharp-tongued sister-in-law, Connie, and J.K. Simmons in his first role as Jesse's superior officer at the academy.

Currently streaming on Netflix, there's no excuse not to watch The Ref this year. A mere hour and a half long, it's the perfect flick to put on while you're prepping for your own family gathering—just so long as no small, impressionable children are in the room, that is.

With crackling, fast-paced dialogue perfectly suited to Leary's manic style and Kevin Spacey's drier, more indignant wit—plus some great moments for Judy Davis to indulge in full-blown histrionics while wearing a candle-bedecked wreath hat—The Ref is certainly not a Christmas comedy for everyone. 

Just those of us with coal in our hearts who would rather enjoy a malicious snigger instead of the clicking of reindeer hooves.

If you like: Shane Black and subversive holiday fun.
Why you should watch it: Because there are only so many times you can suffer through The Santa Clause; it's the perfect capper to an evening when you've already done that most festive of Christmas movies, Die Hard.
Favorite moment(s): The climactic dinner where everyone completely snaps; “Grandma is chewing through her gag.”

Looking for another, darker Christmas movie? Read Brian Greene's review of Lady in the Lake (1947)


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.


  1. Barbara Wilmot

    I used to watch this on video every Christmas Eve to kick start my grinchy attitude. For anyone who hates slushy sentimentality, it’s the perfect Christmas film.

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