Far be it from me to predict how a discourse for a movie will play out. Over the years, there have been many times where the discourse shifted towards a tiny element that most would not notice on first viewing. But for the first time in ages, I feel like I hit on a prediction that has a high chance of being true: no one will be able to talk about Silent Night without also talking about how it manages tone. This is because it swerves between ideas in a way that most movies refuse to do. Whether you get on board with its big swings is up to you. However, it’s hard to deny that its swings are quite large indeed.
What makes this a unique experience is how it starts with a deeply familiar premise. Specifically, writer/director Camille Griffin places the viewer firmly in the realm of holiday dramedies. Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode) are getting ready for a Christmas party at their home in the English countryside. And like most Christmas parties, friends and family are on their way to arrive. This includes people like Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), James (Sope Dirisu), Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and Bella (Lucy Punch). Once everyone arrives, they start to mingle and bicker as one would do in a large get-together.
There is, however, one little wrinkle that makes this premise rather unique. To put it mildly, there is a storm that might put everyone’s lives in danger. This results in all the characters contemplating their possible demise. Some, like Nell and Simon’s son Art (Roman Griffin Davis), are willing to let the storm do its worst. Others, like James and Sandra, are willing to do anything to avoid the storm’s wrath. For the record, this “anything” includes taking pills so potent they can knock someone out. In any case, what started as a wholesome family gathering becomes something right out of a disaster movie.
It takes a talented director to guide Silent Night‘s light-hearted first half into that bleak second half. Luckily, Griffin provides a strong visual contrast between the two. For most of the early scenes, the central location has tons of warm lighting and holiday decorations. In fact, it’s somewhat hard to distinguish it from the dozens of houses you see in a modern Christmas movie. Meanwhile, the later scenes embrace a gloomy darkness, and the greens that emerge are downright sickly. Furthermore, the interior scenes at the house start to lose the warm glow from earlier in the movie.
Even on a scripting level, Silent Night commits to conveying the gravity of the scenario. Almost every character spends time discussing how they would like to go out. It doesn’t matter if the character in question is a senior citizen or a child, the bulk of the ensemble gets a chance to speak their feelings. If anything, it’s characters like Art who are the most frustrated towards having so few options to fight the storm. And the longer the night gets, the more the characters grow nervous about their future. Based on the second half alone, it’s clear that Griffin has a lot of promise as a filmmaker.
It’s just too bad that the promise is far less evident in the film’s first half. Sure, Griffin nails the cozy aesthetic that many Christmas movies seek to have with its crowded cast in a small space. However, it’s not like the comedy itself is all that strong. A large portion of the gags take the form of “young child swears up a storm in front of adults”, and it’s grating each time it happens. While Davis projects his character’s hostile nature quite well, too much of Art is based on that one particular bit. If that wasn’t enough, Sandra’s daughter Kitty (Davida McKenzie) is just as annoying and even more one-dimensional.
On top of that, Silent Night has the misfortune of sabotaging itself at the end. For a movie that is essentially about accepting one’s fate, it takes the effort to craft a final scene that goes against that idea. In fact, the closing seconds make for such a contradiction that it brings down the overall film by several notches. Also, while the filmmakers could not have predicted this, the finale now bears a message that feels like close cousins with anti-vax. And in this day and age, having any message that is close cousins with anti-vax feels irresponsible.
I would love to praise Griffin for delivering a movie that runs the gamut of emotions. By all means does it have a lovely cast – Wallis and Punch are especially terrific – and by all means does it succeed at portraying a grave situation. However, Silent Night is also a movie that shifts between being satisfying and being irritating. And considering that it spends half the time doing the latter, it ensures a final product that is easier to admire than love. – Mark Tan
Silent Night will release in theaters on December 3, 2021.