Admirers of director Abel Ferrara may be relieved that his latest feature, "R Xmas," marks a modest if encouraging return to form. Based on a story by Cassandra de Jesus, and written by Ferrara and Scott Pardo, "R Xmas" tracks some 24 tense hours in the life of a New York City couple known only as "the wife" (a peroxided, very watchable Drea de Matteo) and "the husband" (Lillo Brancato).
It's Christmas Eve 1992, and the couple are busily shopping for presents and tending to their drug empire. In between bagging heroin, the two behave like any other nesters with an enviable ZIP Code: They worry about the cost of private schooling and teach their daughter how to pronounce Guggenheim. Then the husband is snatched by kidnappers, and a stranger (Ice-T) warns that unless the wife comes up with a sizable ransom, she'll celebrate the holidays as a widow.
That's about it for the story, which isn't calamitous because with Ferrara what happens next is rarely as important as what's happening now. An impressionistic blur of scenes and fragments of scenes, "R Xmas" is a film in which nothing much matters but room tone, atmosphere and the way De Matteo stands in a kitchen nipping booze.
Despite the frenzy that sometimes fills his frame, Ferrara is a virtuoso of anti-action: Few directors can put loneliness on screen as persuasively or capture the eerie quiet of people waiting for something, anything to happen. It's in moments such as these, when all sense of time disappears and all that remains are bodies in motion and Ken Kelsch's limpid cinematography, that you remember just how good Ferrara can be.
"R Xmas" never reaches the highs (and lows) of a "Bad Lieutenant," but unlike the director's last feature, "New Rose Hotel," neither is it inexplicable. If you look through the new film's haze of mood, past a narrative that disintegrates with every scene, you can discover an unlikely fable about New York. Squint and you can even see traces of the great movie that could have been. (The French seemed to agree: "R Xmas" premiered at last year's Cannes film festival.)
Then there are the flashes of the director's grotesque humor and pockets of pure weirdness, which are always something to see. It is, after all, hard to imagine anyone else getting as much mileage out of a ceramic baby Jesus, a velvet clown painting or the terrifying image of a "Party Girl" doll caught in a rearview mirror like some ghost of Christmas past.
'R Xmas': Rated R for strong language, drug content and some violence. Exclusively at Laemmle's Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A., (213) 617-0268. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.