Film Review – Silent Night
***Warning: The following contains minor spoilers***
Ahh, the holidays. It’s that magical time of year when family and friends gather, exchange gifts, eat food, be merry, and experience a global apocalypse.
I’m sorry, say that again?
Writer/director Camille Griffin’s feature length debut, Silent Night (2021) is a black comedy-horror that has the makings of something interesting but doesn’t live up to its potential. It’s populated by a cast who are all game to have some naughty fun but are saddled with a story that is neither clever nor entertaining. The further things go along, the bleaker the tone becomes. We start wondering what exactly Griffin and her team are trying to say – the satire is not sharp enough, the comedy is rarely funny, and the horror is not very horrific. Dread builds up to an unsatisfying conclusion, leaving us in a state of hopelessness.
It starts out strong. Nell (Keira Knightley), Simon (Matthew Goode), and their kids Art, Hardy, and Thomas (Roman, Hardy, and Gilby Griffin Davis – Camille’s real-life children) live in an upper class English estate. They are preparing to host Christmas dinner with friends and family. Among their guests are Nell’s sister Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), her husband Tony (Rufus Jones), and their daughter Kitty (Davida McKenzie). We also have childhood friends James (Sopé Dìrisú), Bella (Lucy Punch), and their partners Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), and Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), respectively.
These opening scenes have the hustle and bustle of a traditional holiday film, with the family fixing up the food while the guests arrive one by one. The casting of Keira Knightley is an inspired choice, as she will undoubtably bring to mind the popular holiday rom com, Love Actually (2003). Griffin’s writing and direction works best during this section, as she inserts an underlying menace below the cheer. The cinematography (Sam Renton) and editing (Pia Di Ciaula, Martin Walsh) takes specific notice of small details. Someone cutting themselves with a knife and bleeding over the carrots, gifts wrapped in newspaper with headlines of an oncoming catastrophe, everyone dressed a little too formally – these all add up to a feeling that something is amiss.
When the actors are given enough space to operate freely, they deliver moments that are genuinely engaging. The best scene features a conversation amongst the adults, where old emotions and pent-up animosities start spilling out. Past grievances and infidelities come to light, making for some awkward exchanges. Annabelle Wallis steals the scene as the selfish narcissist. Sporting a sparkling red dress and shoes paid for by her daughter’s college fund, Sandra is the definition of a self-centered character. Wallis inhabits the role with glee, pushing the line far enough to garner laughs but not tipping over into caricature.
We discover this gathering has a somber reason beyond the Christmas season. An enormous toxic cloud has slowly drifted across the world, horribly killing every living creature in its path. The British government has supplied every citizen with a poison pill that will painlessly put them to sleep before the cloud arrives. And so, we are presented with an existential question: What would you do on the last day of your life? Characters debate whether they should take the pill or not. Should they do whatever the government tells them, or should they take the risk and see what happens when they confront the cloud? Is the cloud really dangerous or is there a deeper conspiracy going on?
It’s at this point that the production starts to falter. Griffin is unable to maintain the dark humor of the first half, allowing the narrative to deep dive into super serious territory. The fun and games take a backseat to a depressingly slow walk towards death. A scenario in which characters face the end of the world is not necessarily bad. In fact, with a figurative clock ticking down to zero, they must deal with their unresolved issues plainly and bluntly. Sadly, that is not the case with Silent Night. These characters have such little dimension that it was difficult to root for them. Their pent-up grudges and increasing desperation made them less likeable. Instead of coming together to face the inevitable as one, they bicker and fight.
But on a more troubling note is the implications this story has to real world issues. In a time where the Covid pandemic is still raging and the politics behind vaccines at mind numbing highs, watching people fight over government-issued “medications” plays thoughtlessly and irresponsibly. What is the point here – that we shouldn’t trust our government when a crisis threatens our way of living? That environmental disasters are just the machinations of politicians exerting influence over the masses? If this is meant to be satire, then it is not executed well enough to provide a clear point of view. This problem is punctuated with a final shot that is not only the worst moment of the entire movie, but may give conspiracy theorists more fuel to back their outlandish ideas.
The tonal shifts and unfocused messaging turn out to be the Achilles’ Heel of Silent Night. Camille Griffin shows a lot of promise in her first foray into feature-length filmmaking, but I consider this merely a practice round toward bigger and better things.