SILENT NIGHT (2023)
A grieving father enacts his long-awaited revenge against a ruthless gang on Christmas Eve.
Silent Night, legendary action filmmaker John Woo’s first American film in over 20 years, not to be confused with Camille Griffin’s Silent Night (2021) starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, promises to be the newest entry into the tiny canon of action holiday movies, mixing crimson blood with the joyful red-and-green of Christmas. However, Woo’s latest stint is unlikely to enter the pantheon of festive classics, as his return to Hollywood doesn’t muster enough action or thematic development to be memorable.
On a Christmas Eve marred by tragedy, Brian Godluck (Joel Kinnaman) witnesses the unthinkable: the accidental killing of his son on their front lawn. Consumed by a relentless thirst for vengeance, Godluck embarks on a perilous crusade to bring justice to his son’s killers—a ruthless gang that casts a long shadow over the economically troubled streets of Los Angeles.
The film opens with a vibrant red balloon soaring defiantly against the backdrop of a city grappling with financial hardship. Godluck, sporting an ugly Christmas sweater with Rudolph’s nose poking out, chases two cars opening fire on each other. As he relentlessly pursues the blue Range Rover that left his son lifeless on his lawn, he brandishes an iron bar, smashing the vehicle’s window amidst a hail of bullets.
In a heart-pounding chase through a construction site, Godluck manages to outmanoeuvre his pursuers, evading their attempts to silence him. However, their ruthless leader, Playa (Harold Torres), lands two bullets in Godluck, the second directly into his thorax, permanently taking away his ability to speak.
This sets up the greatest draw of Woo’s newest action revenge story: a film told virtually without dialogue. There are a few exclamations and one-word sentences from the ensemble, but as we follow Godluck on his silent quest for revenge, we’re privy only to a visual spectacle.
The first half of the movie immerses us in Godluck’s obsessive quest for revenge. Despite his lack of fighting experience, he tirelessly dedicates nine months to preparing for his Christmas Eve reckoning. He spends his time upgrading his beat-up Camaro, watching knife demonstrations on YouTube, and training at a gun range. His nearly year-long ordeal is told in meticulous detail that would normally be delivered as a three-minute montage in most other action films. Here, it’s important to the character, following the lengths this father will go to for his son. And it’s impressive to see it laid out without a single spoken word.
As gimmicks go, this dialogue-less approach works because of the strengths of the rest of the cast and crew in elevating the style and visual storytelling. Joel Kinnaman receives the most acclaim for his portrayal of a mute father hellbent on vengeance. With a rich repertoire of action films like the RoboCop (2014) remake, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021), and TV shows like Altered Carbon (2018), Kinnaman is a natural choice as a lone gunman hunting down an entire gang one evening. The sole drawback to his casting is his size. It’s hard to believe he’s a family-man electrician who can only perform a single pull-up, before reinventing himself as a ruthless killer. No amount of baggy clothing can hide his muscular physique.
Luckily, it’s Kinnaman’s eyes that draw us into this story. Throughout the movie, he carries an unblinking obsession that displays deep pain. In the few moments of joy we see, mainly through flashback, we can see what was there before that hollow shell of Godluck haunts the screen. Seeing a man go from a happy family life, kicking a soccer ball in the yard with his kid, to a man lost in revenge with no way out of this obsession is painful. And Woo’s keen to always remind us this is just a father, a man whose life was altered irreparably. He’s not a one-man army or super-assassin. This is a man with nine months of practice who’s never killed anyone before, so blinded by his desire for revenge that he can’t see anything else in his life, not even the joy with his wife, Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno). From the first moment he enacts his plan, kidnapping a gang member for information, he makes mistakes and gets in way over his head, fear and pain shining through his eyes at every moment. This lack of experience creates action filled with tension, rather than for its own sake.
Cinematographer Sharone Meir and editor Zach Staenberg also deserve credit for creating a visually impressive spectacle, with Woo’s signature action scenes and unique transitions. The “one-take” fight set piece unfolding over three stories of stairs in an abandoned building is far and away the most engaging scene in the film.
While the film’s visual style is undeniably impressive, it’s the sound design and score that truly bind the narrative together. Composer Marco Beltrami, the maestro behind the evocative soundtracks of The Hurt Locker (2009) and Logan (2017), masterfully intertwines action and emotion with poignant melodies. Meanwhile, the sound department expertly calibrates the effects to seamlessly fill the spaces left by the absence of dialogue.
Overall, Silent Night demonstrates technical proficiency, eschewing cheap thrills for a more grounded approach. The film effectively conveys emotion through its visual language, even if Woo’s methods are occasionally heavy-handed. While the action sequences are captivating, they are less frequent than fans of Woo’s earlier works like Hard Boiled (1992) and Face/Off (1997) might expect.
The action has to be for a reason. So I tried to make this movie more realistic, unlike what I have done before. My action is usually pretty over the top. Many people are killed, and the heroes are almost like superheroes. But I changed things here.John Woo to The Hollywood Reporter
To compensate for the reduced action, Silent Night relies heavily on thematic resonance and character development. However, these elements fail to fully compensate for the action’s absence, leaving the audience wanting more.
Godluck is a doomed man, tortured by revenge and grief following his son’s death. The film presents these as tragic but does little to make us care for his journey, leaving an emptiness with the film. Moreno’s Saya is more poignant as a woman who effectively loses both her son and, figuratively, her husband.
The final act’s action sequences also fail to deliver a satisfying climax. The rhythm is off, diverting our attention away from crucial moments and lacking the necessary crescendo to strike an enduring chord. When Detective Vassell’s (Kid Cudi) entry into the fray proves more captivating than the ultimate showdown, the story loses momentum and sputters towards the finish line. As the credits rolled I was left with a lingering sense of unfulfilled potential.
Silent Night falls short of being a 21st-century Die Hard (1988). It doesn’t even earn the categorisation of a festive film, despite its evocative title and marketing. Kinnaman’s ugly Christmas sweater and a few white lights aren’t enough to warrant its holiday setting. While technically impressive, Silent Night fails to make a lasting impression as either an action film or a Christmas film. In the context of John Woo’s filmography, it fades into the shadow of superior blockbusters.
USA | 2023 | 104 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: John Woo
writer: Robert Archer Lynn
starring: Joel Kinnaman, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Kid Cudi, Harold Torres, Vinny O’Brien, Yoko Hamamura & Anthony Giulietti.