Dir: Abel Ferrara. US/France. 2000. 85 mins.

It is almost as curious to find this director making a Christmas movie (though it's hardly Abel Ferrara's It's A Wonderful Life) as to see him come up with as a tale about drug dealers with an understated but undeniable Just Say No subtext. However 'R Xmas is Ferrara's most controlled and, perhaps for that reason, most compelling film since his best work of the early Nineties (King of New York; Bad Lieutenant).

Commercial prospects will be limited by the subject-matter but it may draw interest from specialised distributors and should certainly attract bookings on the festival circuit. Unexplained within the narrative, the cryptic title seems to be a pun on the notation RX on medical prescriptions in the US, and will require rethinking for other territories.

The story is set in 1993, during the New York crimewave which developed under David Dinkins' tenure as mayor of the city (and ends by marking the subsequent arrival of Rudolph Giuliani with his 'zero tolerance' tactics). It kicks off with a superabundance of kitschy seasonal good cheer, as a wealthy Hispanic couple (Drea De Matteo and Lillo Brancato) watch their adorable small daughter perform in a school pageant of A Christmas Carol before driving with her through a fairyland Manhattan in a horse-drawn carriage.

However a sour note creeps in at a visit to a department store when ugly scenes erupt between customers battling over the last remaining Party Girl doll, the winter's must-have children's toy. And the obscure sense of unease deepens during a long, almost wordless sequence, as the couple leave their plush Manhattan neighbourhood and drive through the night to the Bronx.

Here, in a shabby apartment, they deal heroin, an activity to which they have become addicted in order to maintain their upscale lifestyle. Business is conducted with clinical precision and detachment, with the couple chatting to dealers about the scandalous Party Girl shortage as they bag up and neatly stamp the merchandise.

Unvoiced tensions are developing between the Latinos (who are never named) and the black gangs dispensing their wares on the street, with each side suspecting the other of cheating them; soon afterwards, the husband is kidnapped and a huge ransom demanded. Frantic, the wife casts around in vain to rustle up the cash at the height of the holidays.

Moments of irony and sometimes downright black comedy are found in the contrast between, on the one hand, the sentimental Christmas season and the couple's glossy lifestyle and, on the other, the sleaziness of their secret world: the wife is reduced to buying her daughter's Party Girl from a bootleg supplier, who proves every bit her match when it comes to ruthless dealing.

Fortunately Ferrara resists the temptation to make too much of this. There's also a nice subtlety in the way the film avoids moral grandstanding to make its points, instead gradually exposing the compromised nature of all its main characters. At first seeming hard and grasping, the Hispanics (she is Puerto Rican, he from the Dominican Republic) are seen to be caught in the same trap as thousands of other New Yorkers with aspirations beyond their means, and several scenes reveal a touching tenderness in their relationship.

The character played by Ice-T is just as conflicted. Billed in the press notes as a 'gangster' (and on the closing credits as a 'kidnapper'), he's in fact eventually revealed as an undercover cop who is arrested in the force's purge of corrupt officers. At the same time, while happy to extort money from the wife, he also lectures her on introducing hard drugs into black neighbourhoods. These confrontations are driven by an ambiguous and potent mix of eroticism, threat and melancholy. De Matteo, an actress best known from the television Mafia drama series, The Sopranos, is a particular revelation in these and her other scenes, as a brassy bottle blonde with unexpected reserves of vulnerability and passion.

Working with a new technical team, Ferrara employs a visual style as detached as his script, with long, unfussily staged scenes punctuated by languid fades. Many sequences (from a visit to Santa's grotto to the black kids silently dealing on the streets) have an almost documentary feel to them and, perhaps partly due to the French presence in the production, the film often seems more like a European character piece than an American underworld movie.

Ken Kelsch's mainly nocturnal photography creates a convincing sense of deep winter, despite a mid-summer shot, while Schooly D's musical score offers inventive and eerie variations on the theme of Silent Night.

Prod co StudioCanal.

Int'l sales Wild Bunch.

French dist Mars

Prod Pierre Kalfon.

Cinematography Ken Kelsch.

Prod des Frank De Curtis.

Eds Bill Pankow, Suzanne Pillsbury, Patricia Bowers.

Mus Schooly D.

Main cast Lillo Brancato, Ice-T, Drea De Matteo.