Silent Night (2023, dir. John Woo)

by | Dec 24, 2023

Certificate: 18

Running Time: 104 mins

UK Distributor: Sky Cinema

UK Release Date: 23 December 2023

WHO’S IN SILENT NIGHT?

Joel Kinnaman, Scott Mescudi, Harold Torres, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Valeria Santaella, Vinny O’Brien, Yoko Hamamura, Alex Briseño

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

John Woo (director, producer), Robert Archer Lynn (writer), Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Christian Mercuri and Lori Tilkin (producers), Marco Beltrami (composer), Sharone Meir (cinematographer), Zach Staenberg (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A grieving father (Kinnaman) enacts brutal vengeance on his son’s killers…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON SILENT NIGHT?

“Show, don’t tell” is a storytelling rule that’s been baked into the visual medium of film since the very beginning, since the images on the screen should do as much, if not more, of the heavy-lifting than written dialogue or exposition. It is also a rule that action filmmaker John Woo has now taken almost too much to heart with his new film Silent Night, with somewhat mixed results.

The unique selling point for the Hong Kong director’s first American film in twenty years is that it barely features any dialogue, leaving it to the action, musical score, the performances etc to convey everything the viewer needs to know about the plot. To his credit, Woo sticks close to his gimmick like a paperclip to a magnet, with any audible dialogue reserved for background noise like car radios or certain soundtrack choices. However, it doesn’t always improve the actual film, and in some ways can be a hinderance to an otherwise watchable, if ultimately standard, revenge thriller.

The film begins as Brian Godluck (Joel Kinnaman), an electrician who has a comfortable life with his wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and young son Taylor (Alex Briseño), is left devastated on Christmas Eve when a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting between gangsters hits and kills Taylor, with a brief chase afterwards ending with him being shot in the neck by gang leader Playa (Harold Torres), which damages his vocal chords. Though initially depressed, with his marriage and mental health deteriorating side by side, Brian soon vows to spend the next year training himself to become an unstoppable killing machine in order to enact brutal vengeance on Playa and his crew on the anniversary of his son’s death – which happens to be, of course, Christmas Eve.

I should say, first and foremost, that if you’re expecting Silent Night to be heavily in tune with its Christmas theme (as suggested by that mere title alone), then be aware that the film surprisingly features very little of its holiday theme. There are a few decorated trees every now and then, some festive tunes play on the soundtrack, and characters even wear Christmas jumpers and Santa costumes at one point, but honestly if you took out all of that the film would seriously be no different, and could have just as easily taken place at any other time of year (one quick rewrite, and this could have been set at Halloween or even Easter). Even the much-debated Christmas movie Die Hard – which this film owes heavy amounts to with its action-heavy tone – had far more festive imagery and a closer tie to the holiday, whereas it’s largely absent here despite clearly setting itself up to be a new Christmas movie.

Of course, the inclusion or lack thereof of festive imagery isn’t quite as important as whether or not Silent Night tells a meaningful and interesting story, and… it does, to a point. The plot isn’t that much different from your typical revenge action-thriller, but there are a number of emotional moments when you can certainly see how deeply the inciting incident has affected the protagonist, which due to the absence of dialogue is largely down to Woo’s direction and Kinnaman’s performance to effectively convey. It is also, somewhat surprisingly for an often high-octane filmmaker like Woo, rather slow-moving, which I assume is intended to draw out the personal drama and make the eventual vengeance seem that much sweeter, but the film never really gets to the heart of its characters, especially with little to no dialogue which makes it much more difficult to get a gage on some of their needs and wants, outside of the obvious revenge against some rather hilariously stereotypical gangsters who serve as our villains.

Speaking of the minimal dialogue, there are times when it really does have the intended effect, including in numerous action scenes where the smooth choreography speaks louder than words (all of which are shot rather gracefully by cinematographer Sharone Meir), and at certain dramatic points which can be legitimately tender. However, as an overall experiment it doesn’t entirely work, because the visuals can only say so much about the deeper implications of the plot and the emotional state of the characters, which are all only ever surface level and barely dig any further down to fully get the viewer behind what is happening. Plus, there are a bunch of scenes where there desperately needs to be dialogue, because they just look and feel awkward without it, especially in a universe where it’s clearly established, through things like talk radio and police scanners, that verbal communication is indeed possible.

While it’s ambitious in the sense that it’s trying a different approach than most action movies, Silent Night isn’t quite as innovating or even as over-the-top as it needs to be in order for this show-don’t-tell experiment to generate some explosive results.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Silent Night sees filmmaker John Woo attempt to tell a brutal revenge story with minimal dialogue in an experiment that generates mixed results, for while there are times when it’s truly effective, the gimmick can’t disguise a standard plot with watchable action and surface-level character work, as well as a surprisingly lack of real festive spirit.

Three out of five stars

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