That thing about getting the stuff we deserve rather than the stuff we want? I feel like that applies to Silent Night, absolutely the Christmas movie of 2021… maybe one of the movies of the year overall. This is the apocalyptically sorta-satirical, absolutely bone-deep terrifying slap in the face that we have properly earned almost two years into a viral pandemic that we could have quashed sooner but didn’t. And that’s even before we get to the looming planetary nightmare this movie is more overtly about: the one we could have started quashing decades ago but didn’t, the one that is now beginning to kick us in the ass hard. (It’s global warming. What is happening here is a sci-fi spinoff of global warming. That’s not a spoiler.)
I say this as a tremendous fan of this movie: It is not a fun or pleasant experience. It is a terrific and terrible one, in the old-fashioned senses of those words: formidable, intense, and full of terror.
Also funny, in an extremely dry way that is nevertheless difficult to laugh at.
On Christmas Day, or at least somewhere in the temporal vicinity, at a rambling house in the English countryside, a close-knit group of former university friends gather for one last blowout. It’s definitely the last one, because the world is ending, and they know it: they have gotten together specifically to go out together. Most of what passes for humor — extremely black humor — is here in the beginning, when rules of politeness and decorum have gone out the window, because why the fuck not, and everyone is saying things they might have bitten their tongues over before. Snarky jokes will be made about how almost none of the old societal rules apply anymore, and isn’t that a jolly good laugh.
Except one rule still applies, at first: the one about stiff upper lips and keeping calm and carrying on. Everyone here is English, by birth or choice: Nell (Keira Knightley: The Aftermath, Official Secrets), whose family home this is, and her husband, Simon (Matthew Goode: Downton Abbey, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society); Sandra (Annabelle Wallis: Annabelle: Creation, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) and her husband, Tony (Rufus Jones: Paddington); couple Bella (Lucy Punch: How to Build a Girl, Stand Up Guys) and Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Only James’s (Sopé Dìrísù: The Huntsman: Winter’s War) much younger girlfriend, Sophie (Lily-Rose Depp), the sole American at the party, wants to honestly and directly talk about the horror they are all facing, the true extent of which we only slowly come to appreciate. Sophie’s bluntness is the only thing that, initially, seems to truly horrify the rest of them.
Sophie, apparently in her very early 20, is also a bridge between generations, between Nell and her pals, all in their 30s and 40s, and their tween kids: Nell and Simon’s twins, Thomas and *snort* Hardy (Gilby Griffin Davis and Hardy Griffin Davis), and their brother, Art (played by their actual older brother, Roman Griffin Davis, the kid from JoJo Rabbit); and Sandra and Tony’s daughter, Kitty (Davida McKenzie). The twins and Kitty are pretty oblivious to what is about to happen, but Art is old enough to have some grasp of their impending doom. He is very much the voice of conscience and pragmatic reality here, raging fruitlessly as he tries to hold his parents — and all adults, everywhere and everywhen before now — to account, for their, our inaction, which has led to this apocalypse, and for, as the grownups decry, the UK government’s “disaster” of a “plan” to deal with it. (We get glimpses of a government website related to the catastrophe that is scarily spot on in its assumption of authority even as it deflects responsibility. There’s even a conversation about whether old people’s lives matter that hits shockingly close to home in our airborne-virus times.)
We’ve seen similar movies to this one before, in which our protagonists know doomsday is coming, in which the filmmakers explore how we might face certain knowledge of humanity’s imminent extinction. In all of them — including Last Night, These Final Hours, and even Knightley’s own Seeking a Friend for the End of the World — the apocalypse is very much Not Our Fault (it’s asteroids with a bull’s-eye on us, usually). The overarching horror of Silent Night is that its apocalypse very much is our fault.
So when I say that this film — the feature debut of writer-director Camille Griffin (mother to the three young sibling cast members) — is brutal and excoriating, that’s because it confronts head on what seems to be humanity’s death wish, the one we’re pretty much mostly collectively all blithely ignoring. It is as deeply enraging as it is powerfully moving, all the usual poignancy about how everything we are as humans and everything we’ve built and created is just going to end, with no one to remember it, compounded by the true, actual cruelty of the fact that we let it happen.
The movie this is most like, perhaps, is Children of Men — and in fact, Silent Night borrows one idea from that film, centers it, and runs with it to a result that is somehow both smaller and bigger than what that earlier film was doing, and far, far bleaker. Where Griffin leaves us is beyond haunting, and captures the vicious conflation of hope and despair that inevitably comes from contemplating the violence we are perpetrating on ourselves and our home. This is an awful movie, and a vitally essential one.