John Woo’s 'Silent Night': What if Charlie Chaplin Had an AR-15?
This dialogue-free revenge thriller was culled from one of Stephen Miller's wet dreams.
Silent Night (2023) - not to be confused with Silent Night (2021), Silent Night (2020), Silent Night (2017), Silent Night (2012), Silent Night (also 2012), Silent Night (2002), or Silent Night (1996) - is legendary Hong Kong action director John Woo’s first English language movie in twenty years, with the caveat that it’s barely an English language movie, or any language movie, really. I think it has about ten lines of audible dialogue total, plus a few on-screen text messages, a couple of handwritten notes, and its mute protagonist very clearly mouthing a few distinct words. Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is comparatively chatty.
The premise is basically Death Wish with an added gimmick. One fine Christmas morning, this dude (Joel Kinnaman) and his son (Anthony Giulietti) are caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout. The dude is shot in the throat, and loses his ability to speak; the son is shot in the all-over, and loses his ability to live. Consequently, the dude devotes the next year of his life to learning how to be John Wick so he can kill the guys who killed his kid. Violence and mayhem ensue.
First, the good news.
At the age of 77, Woo has not lost his ability to expertly stage people shooting one another. None of the gunfights here are as balletic and indifferent to the laws of physics as his best work, in movies like Hard Boiled, The Killer (not that one), and Face/Off, and there’s a startling absence of doves (although there is an allusion to The Red Balloon, and it’s hard to imagine many other action directors drawing inspiration from a sensitive 70-year-old French short). But it’s still way better than most of what passes for a cinematic firefight these days (there are also some good car chases), and for a modern action movie, there’s a refreshing lack of obvious CGI.
Also, it’s nice to see one of these movies where the everyman hero is an actual everyman, and not, like, a former CIA assassin or Navy SEAL or whatever who immediately knows how to violently murder scores and scores of people. It raises the stakes quite a bit for this fella to have almost no idea what he’s doing.
Also also, Kinnaman is a really talented actor, and it’s not easy to carry a whole movie when you never even get to use your voice, so he definitely earns his paycheck here. Tom Hanks was too chickenshit to shut the fuck up for ten minutes in Castaway, but Kinnaman somehow manages to get through this whole thing without having a volleyball to talk to (Robert Redford is also alone and silent for most of 2013’s All is Lost, but that movie has no violent death of any kind 😢).
Also also also, it rarely seems overly-forced that nobody talks even though Kinnaman’s character is the only one who can’t talk. Honestly, if anything, Silent Night calls attention to how much stupid, useless dialogue movies usually have.
Now, the bad news.
The tone is wwwwaaaaayyyyy more serious than you’d expect from both the trailers and Woo’s prior work: as vigilante revenge movies go, this is more Death Wish: Original Deathwish than Deathwish 4: Why the Fuck Do People Keep Marrying This Guy Whose Families Are Always Murdered?, and I would liked to have seen a more knowingly-silly take on the concept (did I mention that Woo directed Face/Off?).
Far more troublingly, the story seems to have been culled from Stephen Miller’s wet dreams (the actual script is credited to Robert Archer Lynn).
Allow me to elaborate:
The Swedish-born Kinnaman, who is in many ways the Aryan physical ideal, is playing with his son on his lawn surrounded by a white picket fence when two cars with gangbangers hanging out the windows shooting at each other speed by.
It’s hard not to see that as a representation of the right’s fear of “urban” (read: not White) crime encroaching on suburban (read: White) America. Like, pretty much every vigilante revenge movie that isn’t Munich is right-leaning, but when your movie is blonde guy vs. hoodlums who are exclusively played by POC, you’re not right-leaning so much as you’re right-laying.
Not helping: a scene where Kinnaman grimaces at some “Fuck the Police” graffiti, a scene where Kinnaman learns the hard way to never trust a heroin addict, and a scene where Kinnaman flips out while staring at a Latin guy who kinda looks like the Latin guy who killed his son, thereby engaging in racial profiling, with which the movie seems to have no problem.
I concede that there are two arguments to be made that the movie isn’t racist - i) the dude’s wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and kid are played by Latin actors, and ii) the other most prominent supporting character is cop played by Kid Cudi, who is Black. Except, again, none of the gangbangers are White; there’s a scene where Kinnaman communicates to Kid Cudi that by taking revenge, he’s doing what the police “should have done,” so it almost feels like he’s making the argument that cops don’t violate the law to kill minorities frequently enough.
Action movies have any number of generic White bad guys of which they can make machine gun fodder - Russian mobsters, Proud Boys, students of Manhattan private schools, etc. - but the makers of Silent Night still opted to suggest that Los Locos from Short Circuit 2 are the biggest threat to innocent Americans today. I think this would be less jarring if the movie wasn’t so po-faced. No one can ever take Woo’s past accomplishments away from him, but when it comes to Silent Night, the studio should have hired the guy who directed Death Wish V: Oops, There Goes Another Daughter! instead.