From its opening sequence, which plays over a campy Christmas anthem called “The Christmas Sweater” (one that could only be dreamt up by Michael Bublé), Silent Night sets out to be deceiving. As our upbeat jingle merrily chimes in the background, we meet a quirky cast of characters who are all on their way to a Christmas dinner hosted by well-to-do couple Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode). As most Christmas ensemble flicks go, each person has their own set of problems. Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), for example, is much younger than the rest of the guests, and is worried that she won’t fit in. Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), on the other hand, is bored by her husband Tony (Rufus Jones), and is secretly pining after her childhood best friend, James (Sope Dirisu). As the cavalry approaches the house, there’s no doubt to be had that we’re in for a good ol’ Christmas romp, and that misadventures galore are bound to follow. But none of our guest’s problems are more dire than the chief problem at hand: The world is just hours away from being consumed by lethal gases caused by global warming.
To save them from suffering, the English government gives citizens “exit pills” which ensure a quick and painless death. This reveal, which comes at the end of the first act, is surprising, especially as it is announced in such a lighthearted way: Nell ends a toast by saying “May we all rest in peace.” From that point forward, the film metamorphoses into a dark comedy that flip-flops between genuine horror and dry, quirky humor.
When Silent Night is dark, it’s really dark—and it really works. Watching a small child cry at the realization that homeless people won’t have anyone to hold their hand when they die, for example, isn’t for the faint of heart, and first-time feature director Camille Griffin artfully holds back from being hysterical or overly grim, with the help of a surprisingly subtle and mature performance from Jojo Rabbit’s Roman Griffin Davis. It’s also virtually impossible to watch stoic patriarch Simon break down and admit how terrified he is of his imminent death without a sinking feeling in your stomach. And, sure, perhaps the music borders on melodramatic at times, but hey, the end of the world is no small thing.
Where Silent Night falls short, however, is that it spends far too much of the first act attempting to offset its big reveal, and from a tonal standpoint, never quite recovers. Based on the film’s beginning, it seems that Griffin imagined that the more one-liners and sparkly dresses added, the less the audience would be able to predict what happens next. And perhaps this is true, but Silent Night never truly recovers from this fake-out. Although the film gets progressively darker and darker as the end gets nearer and nearer, it would have been better if it was able to entirely let go of the droll humor and simply embrace the cynicism, or commit to the humor and spend more time developing a genuinely comical script. When Nell and Simon’s bratty twins bicker over Cokes, for example, it feels forced and unrealistic given the somber tone. The same is true for Sandra’s clichéd, high-school-popular-girl breakdowns.
This isn’t to say that humor couldn’t, perhaps, find a place in Silent Night. But the humor that it has to offer ends up being largely ineffectual, and seems to not quite know what it wants to be. This, in turn, results in a film that is not only tonally confused, but philosophically confused. Indeed, while Silent Night is obviously a piece of fiction, watching in a world that is being eaten alive by global warming and consistently subject to political carelessness, it is impossible to ignore its real-life political roots. But despite its obvious awareness of the world’s unfortunate socio-political situation, none of the film’s humor is particularly satirical, which only further hammers home the question: What is this film really trying to say? On the one hand, it seems to suggest that the end of the world wouldn’t be taken seriously by the elite, but on the other, there are moments of real despair and emotional vulnerability at odds with that theory. If it wants to argue that science shouldn’t be trusted, then why is it also so obviously critical of people who disregard it? Perhaps the truth is that its humor is simply there for shock value.
Some of this inconsistency comes from the performances. Knightley, who is usually fantastic, feels sadly out of place in this quirky, modern drama, and it doesn’t help that her character is underwritten. And while some of the performances are surprisingly affecting and profound, (Davis and Depp in particular stand out), Wallis and Lucy Punch take the arch, sardonic route, and those two modes are at odds with one another.
Still, I would be remiss not to make note of the areas where Silent Night really does work, many of which come through in the complex relationship between Nell and Art. Nell is hell-bent on her son consuming the exit pill, but Art doesn’t want to, because he thinks there’s a chance scientists are wrong and humanity could in fact survive the toxic fumes. In their back-and-forths, Davis skillfully speaks to the generational divide. At one point, Nell sits her son down in an effort to convince him that the end of the world isn’t her fault. Nell has already surrendered to the demise of humanity, but Art is angry, and he wants answers. Because of this, all of their interactions are permeated with a meticulous inquiry into questions of morbidity, mortality and familial power structures. But even with effective individual scenes, Silent Night fails to launch; it sets out to deceive its audience, but only really ends up deceiving itself.
Director: Camille Griffin
Writer: Camille Griffin
Stars: Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis, Annabelle Wallis, Lily-Rose Depp, Sope Dirisu, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Lucy Punch, Rufus Jones
Release Date: December 3, 2021
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.