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Review: An unpleasant ‘Silent Night’ with the dreary dozen

Keira Knightley in “Silent Night”
Keira Knightley in movie “Silent Night.”
(Robert Viglasky / AMC+ / RLJE Films )

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

For the record:

11:08 a.m. Dec. 3, 2021In an earlier version of this review, the final two paragraphs appeared at the beginning.

Eight ghastly adults and four awful children gather on December 25th to eat, drink and argue, and let me stop you before you make the inevitable joke about how that’s just like your Christmas. Camille Griffin’s grimly misanthropic “Silent Night” isn’t like anyone’s Christmas. And not just because there’s an onrushing cloud of poison gas dispensing the gift of global annihilation like a malevolent Santa working through a naughty list that includes every living person on Earth.

It’s also unlike your holiday because however unbearable your Christmas companions, they must surely be, loosely speaking, recognizable as human people. This is more than can be said of the stocking-stuffer characters here: prim, frazzled hostess Nell (Keira Knightley), her personality vacuum husband Simon (Matthew Goode) and the crew of college chums they’ve invited to the large country house they live in with their three boys (played by the director’s own children).

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In the beginning there’s the usual Christmas-movie faffing about, with forgotten desserts and not enough potatoes the chief sources of dramatic tension. But that this is actually a near-future dystopia is signaled by one chilling fact: everyone’s favorite seasonal song is Michael Bublé's latest algorithmic assault on the yuletide ear canal, “The Christmas Sweater,” which was released only last week — stream it now before Guantanamo buys the rights for use on its more recalcitrant interrogatees.

The guests, arriving in gusts of air-kisses, are: Nell’s brayingly abrasive BFF Bella (Lucy Punch) and her girlfriend Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste); quiet doctor James (Sopé Dìrísu) and his American girlfriend Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp); and sequined nightmare Sandra (Annabelle Wallis), her milquetoast hubs Tony (Rufus Jones) and their insufferable daughter, Kitty (Davida McKenzie), whom Veruca Salt herself would probably deem “a bit much.”

The boys take full advantage of the perimortem lifting of the parental injunction on swearing because there is nothing more hilarious and edgy than a cherubic moppet saying “f—” in a British accent. The adults clink Prosecco flutes and swap backhanded compliments. But they can’t stave off discussion of their imminent mortality forever, especially when sitting on a stash of government-issued “exit pills,” which grant the swallower a less grisly end than that promised by the gas cloud. However, Art (Roman Griffin Davis), the eldest of Nell and Simon’s kids, becomes increasingly skeptical of this society-wide suicide plan, making the “Jojo Rabbit” star the rare actor to have portrayed a child undergoing a precocious political disillusionment during both the Holocaust and the Apocalypse.

Especially compared to the insights provided by Don McKellar’s gold-standard we-all-die-tomorrow film “Last Night,” the thin stereotypes in “Silent Night” are weirdly uninteresting to observe in this ultimate pressure situation. They confess to long-standing crushes and grudges but are too witless to do anything about them: Nobody punches anyone or shags anyone they shouldn’t; in fact, no one has any sex at all. Instead they dance a bit, drink a bit, play sozzled solitaire Scrabble and all seem to be planning to get a good night’s sleep, presumably so they can be nicely rested tomorrow, when they die.

This joyless comedy-satire-horror was conceived before the pandemic. But hoo, boy does its muddled point of view on science-led initiatives designed to mitigate a global catastrophe achieve some startlingly wrongheaded resonance today. But then, long before the gotcha ending that, however inadvertently, can’t help but now seem like veiled anti-vaxxism, “Silent Night’s” premise has become as hopelessly tangled as a poorly stored string of Christmas lights.

How can there still be groceries to be looted-to-order from the local store? How are all the internet and power systems still running at optimum levels? Are the staff at Zoom spending their last hours alive manning their desks ensuring Nell can have a glitch-free online farewell with her mum (Trudie Styler), who is tragically dying alone in her ginormous castle? And why is she alone in her ginormous castle? Haven’t they all known about this death sentence long enough to make better plans? Or at least to have enough bloody potatoes on hand? These unremarked-on inconsistencies almost make one suspect that the big reveal is going to be that the whole toxic cloud thing is a massive hoax perpetrated by everybody else in the world solely to get rid of this one gaggle of privileged, screechy dullards. It would be understandable. But alas.

'Silent Night'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. in limited release; also streaming on AMC+


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