Silent Night: Emotional Blanks, by Scott Nye
There are few things more unpleasant than a movie with immense promise coming up as empty as John Woo’s Silent Night does. Woo, one of the masters of action cinema, makes his return to American filmmaking for the first time in twenty years, now in a vastly different landscape. The quick-cut, “MTV-style” editing, explosion-heavy, wire-fu action cinema he helped popularize and which was so critically decried and commercially celebrated has fallen out of fashion, replaced by the balletic long-take ambitious-stunt spectacle of the John Wick, Mission: Impossible, and Mad Max franchises. Where would the master land in this new world order?
The proposition was beyond enticing – a stripped down, barely-100-minute revenge saga without a single spoken word of dialogue. Joel Kinnaman (The Suicide Squad, RoboCop) plays Brian, a working-class family man whose son is killed on Christmas Eve by a stray bullet during a drive-by gang war. He immediately pursues them, is nearly killed, and loses his ability to speak. He vows that on the following Christmas Eve, he will exact his revenge, and spends a year training for it – building muscle, investigating the gang, training himself to fight and drive well and all-around emulate the action heroes we see onscreen.
Now, if you were presented with that premise, there are a few different ways you could go with it. You could heavily emphasize the action at either end, maybe throw in a scene along the way where he tests his skills on the street to mixed results. You could explore it from a cultural angle, dissect why this guy wants to use his son’s death to become John Wick instead of comforting his wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno), maybe with a dash of cultural satire about how we idolize fictional characters.
What I would not recommend doing is letting the training montage stretch on for nearly an entire hour while the audience becomes as bored and restless as Brian’s more-and-more estranged wife, providing along the way zero thematic or dramatic development. It would be almost impossible to overstate how dull this movie is for the vast majority of its running time, how poorly Woo injects any visual inventiveness into it, how little Robert Archer Lynn’s script provides in the way of plot or complication to stoke our interest, except to say that by the time the action does finally ramp up with 25 or 30 minutes to go, I had entirely checked out.
Kinnaman became a sort of mid-level name a little over ten years ago with roles in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Denzel Washington vehicle Safe House, and finally a starring role in the awful RoboCop remake, and he’s sort of maxed out at that level ever since. Little in his past suggests he has the dramatic chops to pull off a film with no dialogue to fall back on, and nothing in Silent Night radicalizes that. Kinnaman wears a face of grim determination throughout, his long, endless year of training never punctuated with a sense of self-doubt as he watches his wife drift further away, and nothing in his eventual quest for vengeance countering his sense of purpose. He is a dull, lifeless creature, bereft of personality and completely uninteresting to watch.
The action, when it does emerge, is largely in the mid-budget knockoff sphere of an Atomic Blonde, Bullet Train, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Kingsman: The Secret Service, or the Hunger Games franchise – films that follow the fashion rather than set it. There are some occasional flourishes, especially as it nears its colorful climax, but they only seek to reload an emotionally empty chamber by stuffing it with blanks. Its continued, labored flashbacks to Brian’s life before his son was killed only drive home the pointlessness of his motivation and how little the film is engaged with the nature of it. It’s not like the film is unaware of how he’s effectively abandoning his wife – it’s a whole section of the film. But he’s not interrogated for it, and his mission isn’t complicated by it. The film just keeps adding stuff in without it providing any nuance or added dynamic to what it’s doing, and it lacks any sense of humor to help buoy its free-float down a river of grief that it has no capacity to truly invest in.
This isn’t even getting into the racial politics of the whole thing, which are dull at best and actively harmful at worst. This is yet another film about a white man seeking revenge on those violent Latinos who destroyed his family, and will doubtlessly destroy more families if left unchecked. Even if one is inclined to be charitable towards this in any way, this has been such a pervasive template for the past twenty or thirty years of cinema that to present it this simply is just flat-out dull. It’s not doing anything new with that dynamic, and reenforcing every cultural assumption that media has painted along the way.
Perhaps I’m simply fortunate in thinking how rare it is to be confronted with something so promising that is this massive a misfire. But leaving the film, I wished it was even rarer.