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'Silent Night' Review: all is not calm, or bright

Camille Griffin’s 'Silent Night' is a Christmas doomsday tale that haunts and humors as friends prepare for their deaths.

A toast to the dead in 'Silent Night.'
(Image: © RLJE Films)

Our Verdict

'Silent Night' is an unholy union of holiday cheer and apocalyptic expiration that savors humankind's deepest, inescapable fears.

For

  • 🎄 Superb cast chemistry.
  • 🎄 Balances horror and ha-has.
  • 🎄 Sharp and sweet like a pointy candy cane.

Against

  • 🎄 Unintended commentary.
  • 🎄 Relies wholly on performances.
  • 🎄 Does have a few lulls.

In a different year, without pandemic anxieties still as common as Christmas hams, Silent Night would hit differently. Since life imitates art and vice versa, one throwaway line can redefine a narrative. One simple conversation in Camille Griffin's holiday doomsday "comedy" — about scientists being wrong about a deadly pathogen outbreak — and, well, the immediate anti-vax implication becomes more "yikes" than provocative. It's muttered. Dialogue whips right past. But, in a modern landscape where people are fighting misinformation daily, this leaves a bad taste that lingers on. It's a film that's otherwise a raucous and meditative examination of how best to cope with humanity's imminent demise. The blackest of comedies at that — where holiday cheer combats existential terror.

It's the last December on planet earth, and Nell (Keira Knightley, Atonement, The Edge of Love ) is determined to host her lifelong friends for a festive final sendoff. Poisonous gas clouds are devouring nations and eradicating their populations — with England next on the menu. Nell and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode, Downton Abbey) pop Prosecco bottles as their guests arrive, hopeful to share a few more smiles before taking their government-issued suicide pill. Some aren't sold on the sleepytime-forever tablet, like Art (Roman Griffin Davis), Nell's son, who starts to question whether or not the friends n' family pact to die together is salvation or murder. Art will not, as it seems, go quietly into the night.

Griffin's feature debut is an experimental challenge that's hinged on pitch-perfect performances. Nell and Simon must remain hospitable and bubbly enough to keep an uptempo mood from bottoming into grave depression — despite Art's paranoid interjections that ensure audiences understand the stakes. Silent Night has to be sufficiently comical to avoid becoming a downer, but serious enough not to let laughs overtake the satire and protest at the heart of the story. It's successful on both fronts. The yin and yang of gallows humor vs. dreadful finality make for an oddly wholesome, yet suffocatingly dire, take on holiday get-togethers. Griffin's confidence in molding actors and relying on conversational tension reigns supreme.

The cast itself is an ensemble that shines, from Sandra (Annabelle Wallis) confessing her attraction to James (Sope Dirisu) because what does infidelity matter, at the world's end? Or Bella's (Lucy Punch) words of apocalyptic wisdom. It's hard to fault any performances as characters dance to Michael Bublés Christmas crooning, between conspiracy theories about Russia being to blame for the global disaster. Everyone commands their moment of influence — except the somehow sidelined Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Alex, Bella's partner and Lily-Rose Depp as James' younger lover and vocal defender of elderly worth. The way interactions can swing from intoxicated jubilation to voice-quivery admissions of petrified fear is the film's most significant accomplishment, in what some might consider a dinner party from hell scenario.

Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode should attract the most praise as parents faking courage for their offspring's sake. However, Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo Rabbit) steals standout attention in another role that makes him a child actor whose talents are limitless.

Silent Night is a crackingly morbid and honestly dysfunctional tale about the absolute pit-in-your-stomach worst of times. Camille Griffin's cinematic riff on the pandemic engulfs yuletide glee and holds good tidings hostage. Everyone's costumes are elegant, while yellow and grey swirls of airborne death consume metropolitan areas outside and the threat of bleeding orifices leaves a bigger question of, "well, what if I don't take the pill" that sears into the audiences' minds. Here's the minor quibble. The film's cleverly catastrophic but I just wish there wasn't an element that rails against going along with government agencies "just" because they're in control. It's a message that rages against tyrannical machines and "science" which, in today's immediate context, aligns itself unfavorably within the current vaccine debates. That's not to suggest it's intentional but only serves to highlight how narratives evolve outside a creator's ultimate control.

Nevertheless, Silent Night is an unholy union of cheer and expiration that savors humankind's profound, inescapable fears. Tremendous performance power fuels this by-design psychological broiler that requires and receives A-games from the actors. Griffin's first feature is a fearless gaze into environmental horror that doesn't buckle or collapse — although there are unfortunate instances that hit far too close to home.  You'll still laugh, cringe and possibly weep as expected — now with a disclaimer, for good measure.