Silent Night Review: A Pitch-Black Christmas Comedy About The End Of The World

The holidays — it's the time for celebration, for homecomings, for awkward family dinners, for contemplating death at the end of the world. Well, less so the latter, but in the pitch-black comedy "Silent Night," it most certainly is the case.

Camille Griffin writes and directs this apocalyptic Christmas movie, which bears all the hallmarks of a homegrown acerbic British holiday comedy, complete with the quirky, foul-mouthed group of friends, the wry humor, and the eye-rolling nods to the sentimentality of the holidays. Our cast of characters, led by Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, are even introduced over a bubbly Michael Bublé Christmas song, to hammer in the "Love Actually" of it all. But this is "Love Actually" for the deeply, depressingly cynical.

"Silent Night" takes place on the night before the end of the world. The silence in the title refers not to the anticipation of the start of Christmas, but the hush that has fallen over the human race as they await their doom. In an apocalyptic event that feels a little too close to home on multiple levels, humanity awaits their end via a toxic storm of gases, which poison the body and cause a person to suffer a painful and bloody death. To avoid such a fate, the British government has distributed to its citizens an "Exit Pill," which will give them a quick and painless death before a vengeful Mother Nature can bring them too much suffering. Amidst all this, a group of longtime friends gather for a Christmas meal together as a last hurrah before the end.

An Awkward Christmas Dinner

"Silent Night" unfolds rather cleverly, like a holiday comedy put on blast. Knightley is the highlight of the film, giving the slightly unhinged performance of a mother on the edge, as she and her family prepare to host a Christmas dinner party. It's the kind of strung-out behavior you'd expect from a party host, but there's something off — she's ordered her husband to let all the house's chickens out of the coop; she reacts indifferently when her son Art (a likable Roman Griffin Davis, basically playing a more sweary version of his "Jojo Rabbit" character) cuts himself while chopping vegetables and asks if he's going to die; and it's really been a while since she's blinked.

As the group arrives one by one, the typical passive-aggressive interactions bubble under the surface — hushed fights over an estranged friend who they forgot to invite, whispered gossip over a hot American girlfriend who's way too young for one of them — but they're dialed up to 11. The drama is magnified, the satirical elements (one friend's snooty daughter trots around in a bright red bow fit for a doll) are ramped up, the dry comedy is wrung out to the point of being dust, and any sentimentality is drowned out in favor of gallows humor. But it takes a while for "Silent Night" to reveal why it feels like the entire ensemble is ready to jump off the edge of a cliff.

Waiting for the Apocalypse

Once the apocalyptic nature of the movie is unveiled, in the middle of the hilariously awkward dinner no less, the air gets let out of the movie. While the reveal itself is deftly done and impossibly tense — Griffin brings out a real horror sensibility to the moment, with Goode in particular tapping into the mercurial intensity that has made him such a scene-stealer in other genre films — the hard left-turn "Silent Night" takes into an exercise in hopelessness isn't well-earned. The issues around the coming apocalypse are a series of current-event buzzwords: climate change, worldwide pandemic, undocumented immigrants, assisted suicide. But "Silent Night" isn't much interested in delving too deep into them, with only Griffin Davis' Art questioning the speed at which all the adults have accepted their reality. Even then, the film doesn't lend him all that much perspective, instead swinging the focus to the group of adult friends and their longtime regrets or resentments, which the ensemble admittedly makes a blast to watch.

Goode (reveling in getting to do comedy for once) and Knightley are the giggling hosts who would rather repress their anxieties rather than face them. Annabelle Wallis is a surprising comedic force, playing the shallow, high-strung friend who throws herself at every man at the party, except for her husband (a beleaguered Rufus Jones). Lucy Punch and Kirby Howell-Baptiste are hilarious as the tactless lesbian friend and her totally checked-out partner, respectively. The only weak spots of the cast are Sope Dirisu and Lily-Rose Depp, who are saddled with playing the straight men, and then the sobering bringers of reality, neither of which they do with much panache.

The wild tonal swings of "Silent Night" are more of a feature than a bug, that's for sure. But apart from its conceit of playing out as an amplified version of an awkward Christmas comedy, there isn't much beneath the surface of "Silent Night." It's got a nasty streak that sneaks in towards the end, which leaves the film on a bit of a sour note. But as a pitch-black holiday comedy that lets Knightley and co. let loose in a foul-mouthed comedy of manners, "Silent Night" is a sticky, sickly treat.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10