Camille Griffin’s “Silent Night” is a movie built around a compelling premise and with a great ensemble cast to see it through. Sadly, it’s a movie undone by some needless creative choices and a script that channels its ending well before the final act.
Griffin writes and directs this acidic dark comedy set predominantly at a remote country estate where a group of old boarding school friends come together for Christmas dinner. The weekend festivities are put on by Nell (Keira Knightley) and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode). They have three boys, the rude and dour Art (Roman Griffin Davis of “Jojo Rabbit”), and twins Thomas and Hardy (Gilby and Hardy Griffin Davis). Interestingly, the three boys are the director’s real-life sons.
Within the first few minutes friends start to arrive. There’s the flirty and pointedly snobbish Sandra (a really good Annabelle Wallis) and her aggressively boring husband Tony (Rufus Jones). There’s James (Sope Dirisu) and his young American girlfriend Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp). And there’s the least interesting couple, Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Bella (Lucy Punch). “Tonight is all about love and forgiveness,” Nell proclaims with both trepidation and uncertainty. Wishful thinking.
It doesn’t take long to realize that this gathering won’t be a joyous occasion. In fact, this is a dismal and toxic bunch whose friendly greetings quickly curdle into tactless insults and impudence. They would actually be fascinating to watch if Griffin’s writing didn’t handcuff them with her strange approach to dialogue. Every character (and I do mean every, including the children) spit profanity like they’re auditioning for a Tarantino movie. I’m not on a high horse, I just can’t figure out the point of it. The movie itself even makes an effort to reference its crude language more than once so it’s clearly an intentional decision. The problem is it feels intentional rather than natural and quickly becomes a distraction.
While the movie sets itself during Christmas, the holiday is nothing more than a plot device to get everyone together. A couple of ungainly gags and the strangely out of place Christmas music is really all the Yuletide allusions you can expect. Instead there’s something far more ominous behind their get-together. It turns out that they’ve gathered on the eve of the apocalypse. A noxious storm full of life-killing poison gas is sweeping across the globe. Scientists warn that inhalation is unavoidable and will lead to an excruciating death. As a result, the world’s governments have sanctioned a pill that will ensure a pain-free demise. It’s all part of their “Die With Dignity” campaign.
As you can tell, the premise leaves plenty for Griffin to explore: moral questions, existential questions, sociopolitical questions, etc. Themes of mortality, government, science, and parenting just scratch the surface. It’s such fertile ground to dig into. Sadly, we have to wade through a lot of upper-crust bickering over petty nonsense to finally reach the point where the movie has something concrete to say. Yes there’s the occasional laughably one-the-nose conversation such as Simon talking to Art about immigration. But for the most part, it takes waiting for the final act to really get into the interesting stuff.
To the casts credit everyone gives it their all. Despite being handed mostly one-dimensional characters, there’s not a bad performance to be found. Knightley, Wallis, Dirisu, and Depp are especially good. But they can only carry so much of the load. While Griffin’s direction is savvy and efficient, her script is full of confounding choices that underserves the characters and squashes the film’s potential. It’s yet another example of a movie that left me wishing for what it could have been rather than enjoying what it actually is. “Silent Night” is set to release December 3rd.