Everyone feels a hair of dread when it comes to celebrating large holidays with family. Yes, we all want those homecooked meals, traditional bits we remember from our childhoods, and the loving embrace of kin. But families have idiosyncrasies, quibbles and predictable disagreements, and quirks impossible to reconcile. So, yeah, giving up precious days of the year to play nice with your bickering family can sometimes suck, but it’s not the end of the world.
Well, for the family in Silent Night, it is.
Nell (Keira Knightley) wants everything to be perfect before her family’s arrival at the large farmhouse. She’s cleaned the sheets, prepped dinner, and has asked them all to commit to the theme of “love and forgiveness.” She’s stashed the dirty laundry where it can’t be seen and doesn’t have enough potatoes for everyone, but nobody’s perfect. As Nell’s siblings, their partners, and children arrive, Nell beams with love and pride over the warm home she’s created, but something’s just a bit off. Sandra (Annabelle Wallis, Malignant) boasts a formal outfit with designer shoes she bought with her daughter’s education fund, Lucy (Bella Punch) asks Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) not to drink, no matter the stakes of the night, and James (Sope Dirisu) struggles to keep his meek partner, Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), from being uncharacteristically blunt. All seems to be your average family comedy, inducing laughter at the clumsiness of having too few potatoes at dinner and the awkward kid not getting along with the others, but the evening turns bleak when young Art (Roman Griffin Davis) asks about the Queen’s doomsday bunker. Something is amiss at this gathering, and the holiday dinner is slowly revealed to be more of a pitch-black send-off than a celebration of light and life.
The cards that Silent Night keeps close to its chest reveal that it’s the end of the world. A poisonous gas carried by storm clouds is set to envelop and kill every living thing. To avoid the excruciating pain of the gas’s effects, the government has distributed “exit pills” that the family plans to consume before the impending arrival of the storm. Suddenly, bizarre moments like how casually two of the men choose to rob a Tesco and how nonchalantly the women admire a stolen coat, make sense: It’s the apocalypse and they’re just trying to enjoy a nice meal.
Writer and director Camille Griffin wanted to explore privilege as it functions when tragedy knocks on the door. She wrote the story pre-COVID and shot during, which added a grim blanket to the otherwise fantastical tale. It’s her first feature, having previously created shorts, and it’s impressive how much she’s able to pull from this simple premise. Before the film veers into darkness, it is a familiar story of the complexities of family: the jealous sibling, the uncomfortable partner, the unwelcome one, the one they forgot to invite. These dynamics still play out in familiar ways, only everyone is more honest and more prone to crying than usual. Throughout the evening, secrets and confessions pour out of everyone in ways that feel like an electrified version of an otherwise recognizable tale of a messy family gathering filled with too much alcohol. As it spirals into a disaster story, it subtly explores themes of grief and fear. Using the family dynamic, it touches on the burden of a parent trying to explain difficult topics to their children while they, themselves, are struggling with them. It highlights the limitations of families to embrace newcomers who might carry their own sets of personal ethics. Further, the story leave space to explore privilege and economical divides (like when the government rations exit pills to certain groups), and how easy it is to question authority and scientists about a possible extinction event.
As the otherwise sparkling evening treads on, Art kicks everyone off the rails with his insistence of there being another way, and his refusal to comply with the death orders. While the adults dance in their best outfits, Art squirrels away in his room, watching videos about the storm clouds and his impending doom. There’s a small desire to want the movie to rise to the occasion of a world-ending event, but that’s not the story it’s telling. At its core, it’s the tale of Nell and her meticulously applied soft pink lipstick acting as the cherry on top of her perfect dinner. Nothing will ruin the night she so perfectly planned, not even the end of days. Sitting across from her is Art, the fearful youngster with just enough wherewithal to have compassion and fear of the unknown, while the others seem to clunk heads over their own hopes and regrets.
Silent Night doesn’t exist to fill the gap between the sunshiny canon of Christmas movies that flood our cable packages each year. It’s a 92-minute existential crisis bookended by Michael Bublé music and a glass of prosecco.
Silent Night was screened at the 2021 TIFF film festival. AMC+ and RLJE are expected to release the film in theaters and to streaming this December.
Header Image Source: KLJE Films