The rooms are dressed with holly and candles. The tree is aglow, with a raft of presents beneath it; the larder is stocked with festive treats. And a group of friends converge on this jubilant scene, after a couple of front-seat arguments about whether the new Christmas #1 single is fun or rubbish.
It’s probably rubbish, but no one wants to be too negative for this Yuletide gathering. It’s not just the warm glow of the season keeping the cynicism at bay, but the glowing stormclouds on the horizon. They’re going to kill everyone in their path with toxic gasses, as has happened over much of the world. This will be Last Christmas for everyone who’s descended on Nell (Keira Knightley) and Simon’s (Matthew Goode) English country home. There will be no chance for anyone to give someone their heart and then they give it away the very next day. There will be no next day.
Sort of like “It’s a Disaster” recast as a Christmas movie, Camille Griffin’s “Silent Night” may seem tonally confused in its quick turns from farce into tragedy until you realize one thing: everyone here is British — well, except for Lily Rose-Depp — and this is an exceptionally British movie. Mixing dark comedy with outright bathos is something our friends across the pond do well, and Griffin finds the perfect vessel for that strange blend of emotion in her very own son, Roman Griffin Davis. Yes, the star of “JoJo Rabbit” Roman Griffin Davis! And he’s being directed by his mum in another strange cinematic cocktail of death and chuckles. But if “Silent Night” ultimately aces its peculiar tone, it struggles with having anything to say.
Griffin Davis plays Nell and Simon’s oldest son, Art, and while he becomes the heart of the movie, he doesn’t steal its spotlight until near the end. Among all the friends descending on Nell and Simon, there are simply too many engaging characters to introduce: Annabelle Wallis’s Sandra wears a skintight cocktail dress that seems a little too transparent bid for attention, especially as she’s married to the quiet Tony (Rufus Jones); Bella (Lucy Punch) and Alex (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) are a lesbian couple committed to oversharing, with Bella even admitting that she’d shagged Tony “to see what it was like with a dude”; and Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù is a prominent doctor who’s hooked up with the barely-into-her 20s Sophie (Depp). She’s an interloper into this 30-something soiree not only because of her age, or because she’s American. Sophie bears a secret: she’s pregnant.
That makes the choice before her all the more stark. These friends have gathered to celebrate one last great night together before committing suicide as a group. With most of the nations of Earth already destroyed by toxic clouds of gas emitted from the Earth in reaction to humanity’s incessant pollution, the U.K. government has come up with a solution: It dispensed “Exit Pills” for anyone who wants them — little capsules that’ll enact a painless death in minutes. Everyone’s going to die, so people should have the choice to die in a less agonizing, more dignified way. (The homeless and undocumented immigrants aren’t given the “Exit Pill;” agony is their only choice.)
After filling up on mince pies and wine, the party disperses to their respective bedrooms for the loved ones to spend quiet final moments together before popping the pill. This leads to some of the film’s best comedy: How do you say goodbye for the last time? If you’re going to down that pill with one last drink, that beverage has to be just perfect, right? Chilled just so? And there has to be enough of it? It’s all so sad, it’s rather hilarious.
“Silent Night” turns a corner and plunges into pure drama by the end. Griffin Davis’s Art is the only one to reject the idea that there’s no way out of this impending doom. He revolts against the Exit Pill, which raises the specter of his parents possibly force-feeding it to him. Director Griffin gets a remarkable performance out of her son, presenting the horror that confronts him as just that: horror — whereas “JoJo Rabbit” arguably glossed over its traumas. Mining a level of emotion that Taika Waititi’s film failed to achieve, it’s as if Griffin set out to show that this is what her son can really do.
But to what end? The passivity demonstrated by everyone in consenting to end their lives is horrifying, but Griffin doesn’t connect it to a larger societal issue: Our collective passivity, especially our apathy toward climate change, may have doomed us all to begin with. Is she making some kind of anti-government statement with the dispensing of the Exit Pills? Some specific critique of the British stiff upper lip? “Silent Night” has the courage to face harsh reality, and a scene where Griffin Davis spasms in agony after being exposed to the gas is truly like looking into the abyss. For all of that, however, the film lacks a point of view.
Although Griffin said she wrote the film before anyone heard of Covid-19, it appears to be intended as an allegory. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic that’s raised the kind of thorny issues on display, but it’s unclear what this allegory wants to be. “Silent Night” gleams like tinsel, but is just as flimsy.
“Silent Night” world premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It was bought by AMC+ and RLJE Films and will be released in theaters and on streaming this December.