Silent Night (United States, 2023)December 01, 2023
John Woo directing a revenge-themed thriller…what could be more perfect? After all, Woo is a living legend for his acclaimed action films, The Killer and Hard Boiled, even if his English-language movies haven’t been on quite the same level. Still, combining Woo with this material would seem to be a match made in Hollywood heaven…except it isn’t. What should be a “can’t miss” proposition misses not by a little but a lot. And it’s not hard to understand what went wrong.
When it comes to the action/thriller genre, revenge movies are all the rage. Many have callbacks to the 1999 film Payback (which itself was a remake of 1967’s Point Blank), about a man who kills his way up a chain of command to exact his revenge. The last few years have seen a number of these movies, including (of course) John Wick, Nobody, and the underrated (and brilliant) Sisu. All of these were very violent, very stylish, and very witty. For Meatloaf, two out of three might not be bad, but for Silent Night, it is. The movie is gloriously gory and steeped in artistic flourishes but it takes itself way too seriously. It’s dour and gloomy. It’s depressing. Each killing isn’t a triumph but a reason for the viewer to sink deeper into the movie theater seat cushion.
Then there’s the gimmick. Aside from a couple of text messages and radio broadcast announcements, Silent Night is free of dialogue. No one talks (at least intelligibly). There’s some screaming and mumbling but that’s about it. The lead character, Joel Kinnaman’s Godlock, has lost his ability to speak but that doesn’t explain the lack of words from his wife, Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno), or Vassell (Kid Cudi), the police officer who becomes his accomplice. This “stylistic choice” (as Woo would call it) might seem to be a clever conceit in principle but it fails in practice. It distances the viewer from the action and causes a certain level of frustration. Simply put, it doesn’t work and becomes an impediment to enjoying the movie beyond the lovingly-choreographed fights, car chases, and shootings.
The story opens on Christmas Day. Godlock and his seven-year-old son are playing in the backyard while Saya looks on. Suddenly, gunshots erupt from a gang-fueled shootout between two cars passing along the suburban streets of the neighborhood. Godlock’s son is killed by an errant bullet and he is badly injured when he chases down the culprits. Before he is shot in the throat, he sees the face of his assailant (Harold Torres) – a face that will remain imprinted on his memory. As he is recovering from his wounds, Detective Vassell visits him in the hospital but no words are exchanged.
Four months later, Godlock’s physical injuries have healed but not his mental ones. He has become a morose alcoholic and Saya decides to leave him. Around this time, Godlock realizes that the only way he can move forward is to get revenge for his son’s killing so he begins the hard work of using police wanted posters to identify the criminals while putting his body through a punishing workout routine designed to turn him into a Batman-type vigilante. The arrival of Christmas and the one-year anniversary of his son’s death provides Godlock with the motivation to strike. He does so without compromise or mercy, showing little concern for his own health and safety.
Despite often feeling like a second-rate John Wick knock-off, Silent Night isn’t without its moments. Woo’s kinetic instincts are evident in some of the signature fight scenes although the final confrontation feels anticlimactic. The problem is the tone. Payback was fun. Kill Bill was fun. Nobody and Sisu were fun. Silent Night is the antithesis of fun. It’s a chore. The death of a child hangs over everything like a pall. Godlock has clearly lost his mind and it’s rarely fun spending 100 minutes with someone so impaired. The tsunami of grief is so palpable that it diminishes the visceral thrill viewers expect from this sort of movie. Is that the point? Is Woo using this ultra-violent experience to make an anti-violence statement? Perhaps, but even if that’s the case, it doesn’t work. Whatever the director is trying to do with the movie, it makes it for one big lump of coal in the 2023 cinematic stocking.
Silent Night (United States, 2023)
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Kid Cudi, Harold Torres, Yoko Hamamura
Screenplay: Robert Archer Lynn
Cinematography: Sharone Meir
Music: Marco Beltrami
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
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