There’s always a place for horror during the winter holidays. Gathering in groups to commemorate the end of the year provides a chance to eat, drink, and be merry with full knowledge that, as the great Welsh philosopher Tom Jones once sang, “Tomorrow is promised to no man.” Dread lurks behind every joy, just as mirth invariably hangs adjacent to every sorrow; somehow eggnog best personifies this unpredictable balance of elements. Silent Night, the feature film debut from writer-director Camille Griffin, seeks to stir holiday cheer and a staggering amount of tragic death into an enthralling seasonal cocktail. But the mixology is way off.
The opening reel is rather promising, with Nell (Keira Knightley, offering Deborah Foreman in April Fool’s Day vibes) welcoming her friends and their children and significant others to the sprawling English manse where this year’s yuletide festivities have an urgent sense of purpose. “Tonight is all about love and forgiveness,” she says—a hint and a half that things are amiss. There are some nice stylistic touches here: Many of the women wear outfits whose patterns look like the kind you’d find on wrapping paper, and it’s rare to see a non-costume drama this into sleeve- and cuff-based characterization.
Viewers who think up their own drinking games will find Silent Night a case of alcohol poisoning waiting to happen; a mere sip of liquor any time a child says “fuck” is a fast track to oblivion. And oblivion is definitely on the agenda for this particular gathering: An imminent cloud of toxic gas is sweeping across the planet, giving new meaning to “last Christmas.” The U.K. government has distributed “exit pills” to its citizens (undocumented immigrants excluded, because the Tories and UKIP will do that), and the plan is for everyone to have a last blowout party before checking out as the aforementioned cloud rolls in to engage in some internal, nonconsensual melting.
Looking for some form of good time, the grownups swan-dive into nostalgia—watching E.T., reminiscing about the good ol’ days had with those who couldn’t make the group sendoff, indulging in singalongs and dance parties. The choice of songs for these moments speaks volumes: There’s an exceptionally specific choice made to feature not just Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child” (a perennial UK Christmas favorite) but the 1988 Mixmaster Pete Hammond remix of it, placing this group of friends in a very deliberate pop-culture lane. That credibility is then squashed with a cheap cover of Irene Cara’s “Fame” (no offense to the vocalist, but no subsequent version matches the fire of Cara’s take). Music licensing issues aside, would anyone having a final bash before killing themselves put up with an inferior cover?
Doubtless there are some cultural specifics to British class structure that lend this material more texture and nuance than an American reviewer can detect. But the vast majority of the characters (including some of the children) are hateful ciphers who don’t inspire nearly enough sympathy to make their plight remotely relatable. More than that, the writing isn’t good enough to elevate their hatefulness to a level worthy of schadenfreude. When a film is utterly clueless about how loathsome its characters are, the result can be an unintentional jewel like I Melt With You, one of the funniest dramas ever made. Silent Night simply hates everyone on screen, to the point where any emotional response it inspires inevitably calficies into frustration.
The Children (2008) handled this scenario with effective scares and a more effortless resonance, while the black comedy It’s A Disaster was just as vicious and exponentially funnier. And of course there’s Don McKellar’s still-unequalled Last Night, which found inspirational, witty, and open-hearted ways to explore its similar end-of-the-world themes. (The Canadian-ness certainly helped.) For a film written and nearly finished before the pandemic (with some reshoots in late 2020), Silent Night practically bleats for relevancy. Each of the many arguments its characters have about the exit pill collapse into the same emotional beats, with no effort made to cover any new ground. In that respect, the movie does at least capture the very 2021 experience of arguing with vaccine skeptics: the same battle, again and again, with diminishing returns and an erosion of empathy.