SILENT NIGHT (TIFF2021) – Review by Leslie Combemale

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Can you remember the first time you really knew you were going to die? You know, when you learned that every human and living being on the planet has an expiration date, including you? What if that date was Christmas, and everyone else was going to die, too? That’s the premise for writer/director Camille Griffin’s film Silent Night. The film is terrifying and as dark as a starless sky, not because of the premise itself, but because of how the story unfolds.

Absolutely not for children, and not even for adults who avoid movies with children in peril, this is decidedly not a Christmas movie. It has the trappings of one, complete with a super creepy and completely ridiculous song called The Christmas Sweater sung by Michael Bublé, but Silent Night is a horror-drama, and certainly scarier than most holiday slasher flicks.

Nell (Keira Knightley) and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode) are readying their posh manor house for the family Christmas eve dinner. Pressure seems to be high, but that could be holiday dysfunctional family business as usual. Nell wants everything to be perfect, but she and Simon have given both their 13 year old son Art (Roman Griffin Davis) and their younger twins Thomas and Hardy (Gilby and Hardy Griffin Davis) permission to curse, and they are doing so with vigor. As members start showing up, she gives hugs, and reminds them it is a night of forgiveness and love. There’s Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), her husband Tony (Rufus Jones) and their daughter Kitty (David McKenzie), a young doctor named James (Sope Dirisu) and his lady love Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp, looking more and more like her mother, Vanessa Paradis), and partners Bella (Lucy Punch) and Alex (Kirby Howell-Batiste). As expected, there are simmering resentments and secrets best not shared, but this being a holiday, they all make themselves known. Of course they are, since this is the last evening they’ll spend together. Tomorrow morning, they’ll all be dead, and so, we are told, will every other person on Earth.

The reveal happens slowly, although there are small clues from the beginning. Since most viewers will know the premise going in, they’ll be watching and listening for the cracks in the festive Christmas cheer. For one thing, there’s no water. The adults are drinking Prosecco, and the kids are drinking orange soda. What’s coming out of the tap is brown and pungent of effluvia. The various revelers are dropping the ‘well, we don’t have to worry about that anymore’ type of comments. Nell and Simon’s son Art, though, is obsessed with the toxic clouds, and the way they’ll kill when they arrive overhead. They cause a sort of hemorrhagic reaction that includes seizures, melting organs, and bleeding from every orifice. It’s excruciating, and it isn’t pretty. That’s why the government has given every upstanding citizen a big pill that kills them without pain. This does not including the homeless or undocumented immigrants, because f*ck them, apparently. Art can’t stop sneaking away to read about deaths and impending world doom or talking openly about the unfairness of exclusion. He’s putting a damper on everyone’s last day alive.

This is really Roman Griffin Davis’s film. His character Art is actually having to grasp in one night, not only that he’s going to die just like every other person ever alive, but it’s going to happen in a matter of hours. His discovery goes way beyond an existential crisis into mental breakdown territory, and it’s Art’s experience that makes the film so terrifying. As writer and director of the film, Griffin breaks an unwritten rule by showing children in distress, but she has that freedom, because she’s directing her own son Roman Griffin Davis in this story. In theory, as a mother, she can deal with how he handles it as an actor and as a young person, and as a director, she can guide him to his best performance. Suffice to say, there’s a scene with him that might haunt you, especially if you’re a parent yourself. If all of that hasn’t scared you off, trust that Griffin Davis really sells the story, and is never less than completely believable in the role.

Silent Night suffers from a few hiccups. Several of the occasional asides between two actors alone are less than compelling, and slow the pacing considerably. The movie, you should excuse the expression, ‘lives or dies’ on its pacing, so that’s a problem. The inevitable and required shift in tone is executed a bit clumsily. In fairness, I’m not sure how easy it could ever be to go, within minutes, from Love Actually to On the Beach. Perhaps if there were less chats, or the focus started more firmly on Art’s perspective, the progression from holiday cheer to desperation and fear would have worked better. All in all, though, because of Roman Griffin Davis’s striking performance and the more inventive and emotional aspects of the film Silent Night is an impressive effort by Griffin, and a respectable addition to the end of the world genre.

3 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.