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TIFF 2021: Silent Night is a joyless, doomed slog

Silent Night

An admittedly intriguing blend of bleaker-than-bleak comedy and holiday spirit is undermined by noxious writing and character work.

If you do not yet know about  Silent Night’s big twist, I’d strongly recommend you set his review aside. Talking about Camille Griffin’s directorial debut requires talking about its twist. To sum up: Silent Night is awful. It aims to blend dark comedy with sentiment via an audacious story but does little with its intriguing core idea. What it does do does not work.

It’s Christmas, and married couple Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon (Matthew Goode) are preparing to host a celebration for a group of their old school friends. Their pals include snotty Toby (Rufus Jones) and Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), obnoxious Bella (Lucy Punch) and her girlfriend Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and James (Ṣọpé Dìrísù), and his girlfriend Sophie (Lily Rose-Depp), whose youth and American heritage make her an outsider amongst the others.

At first, everything seems normal enough—Nell and Simon try to wrestle their three young kids into readiness while fretting about whether they have enough potatoes for the meal—but soon cracks start to show. The kids are swearing a lot without any of the adults batting an eye. Simon goes off to break into a nearby shop to acquire a forgotten desert, and Sandra confesses that she used her young daughter’s college fund to buy her super-expensive shoes. All this happens before they all sit down for dinner and the usual holiday gathering tensions surface.

Silent Night
RLJE

And then the shoe drops. This Christmas is the last Christmas—not just for these friends, but for humanity. Unchecked climate change has led to unstoppable clouds of poisonous gas covering the world, clouds that are due to pass over Nell and Simon’s just after midnight. To minimize the agony, the government has taken a page from Children of Men and distributed poison to their doomed citizens (“Exit Pill: Die with Dignity” reads the official government website.) Thus, the plan is for Nell, Simon, their kids, and their friends to share the holiday and shuffle off the mortal coil before the gas hits.

But Art (Roman Griffin Davis, the director’s son and star of Jojo Rabbit), Nell and Simon’s oldest son, is not wholly on board with what his parents have been telling him—what if the science is wrong? With Art’s doubt, everything begins to spiral out of control. Old friends drink, dance, and rehash oft-told stories while comparative outsiders like Art and Sophie struggle to comprehend what is coming.

The ensemble, talented though they are, are playing a band of characters so obnoxious and uninteresting that their impending annihilation becomes something to cheer on.

With its combination of holiday whimsy and a group of close-knit people preparing for their rapidly impending annihilation, Silent Night certainly has a grabber of a premise—Christmas and Haneke, together at last! For everyone who has ever watched Love Actually and Last Christmas and idly wished for all their characters to be suddenly, brutally obliterated, Silent Night may sound downright irresistible. Unfortunately, its execution is hideous.

The ensemble, talented though they are, are playing a band of characters so obnoxious and uninteresting that their impending annihilation becomes something to cheer on. If there was any sense that these longtime friends were finally venting all their pent-up feelings and resentments Silent Night, it might have worked. But, except for Sophie, every last character is so shallow that there is no sense that the imminent demise of humanity has affected their collective solipsism in the slightest.

Silent Night deserves credit for having the nerve to unite the holidays and the end of the world, but nerve counts for little without the craft to back it up.

Then there is the ending. In a film filled with infuriating moments, Silent Night’s close isquite possibly the most off-putting of all. Although the picture takes pains to blame the death of the world on un-countered climate change, it ineptly tries to balance the scales with the suggestion that maybe science got it wrong, culminating in a finale that might have seemed funny and audacious on paper. In practice, it’s gross.

Silent Night deserves credit for having the nerve to unite the holidays and the end of the world, but nerve counts for little without the craft to back it up. Its dark comedy never finds the right groove. Its depiction of people coming to terms with the end of everything, each in their unique way, is a dud that winds up playing like Melancholia sans the whimsy. If you’re craving an unconventional Christmas movie, try Riders of Justice instead.

Silent Night releases in theaters and AMC+ on December 3rd, 2021.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.