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Review: ‘Silent Night’ executes without words

‘Silent Night’ isn’t John Woo’s best action movie, but it uses its quiet concept to its full potential

A scene from 'Silent Night'
A scene from 'Silent Night' courtesy of VVS Films
A scene from 'Silent Night' courtesy of VVS Films

‘Silent Night’ isn’t John Woo’s best action movie, but it uses its quiet concept to its full potential in spite of some other shortcomings.

In recent years, American action movies have been taken to a level primarily only previously found in Asian genre films. Whether it’s adapting fighting styles like “gun fu” in John Wick or Tom Cruise performing his own stunts in the Mission Impossible franchise, there’s a new standard against which Western pictures are being measured. Thus, even though the typical gunfight can still be entertaining and integral to the narrative, audiences want and expect more of these movies. Filmmaker John Woo was one of the pioneers of Asian stylized action cinema and the “bullet ballet,” so his latest American picture, Silent Night, was a highly anticipated addition to the catalogue.

Brian Godluck’s (Joel Kinnaman) family was a victim of circumstance, tearing them apart and forever wounding him beyond repair. In spite of living in a quiet neighbourhood, they were not immune to the gang violence spreading across the city like a plague. The meaning of Christmas was permanently altered as was Brian, who, after wallowing in grief and drink, spends the next year plotting revenge against the gang members responsible for shooting his son. Honing his body and learning combat tactics from YouTube, Brian has one goal in life and nothing will stand in his way of achieving it.

The film begins with Brian sprinting down streets and alleys with a mysterious sense of urgency. It’s unclear if he’s running away or towards something, but the Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer Christmas sweater and sleigh bell jingling around his neck adds a degree of tragedy and absurdity to the scene. Flashbacks of the shooting and life before it are sprinkled throughout the narrative as Brian is haunted by his memories, driving his need for vengeance. His dedication is unwavering, though it does create some questions surrounding his employment and ability to so easily fund his retribution project.

The movie’s most notable attribute is it’s entirely free of spoken dialogue. Scenes are played in silence with the occasional text or hand-written exchange that naturally fit the narrative. There are a few moments in which audiences may expect a conversation or at least one word to be uttered, but Woo brilliantly circumvents the need for anyone to speak via scene structure or editing for the picture’s entirety. Even as Kinnaman goes through the motions, he generally maintains a stoic expression except for the occasional look of frustration. It’s an intriguing concept made to work flawlessly so viewers may not even be aware of it for most of the picture. However, there are sections that drag, noticeably slowing the film’s pace and testing the effectiveness of the approach. Tightening it to 90 minutes would likely solve this issue.

Beginning with an intense chase through the community, there is an extended lull while various montages depict Brian’s training and how his behaviour is impacting his wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Months are crossed off the calendar and Newton’s cradle mimics the ticking clock moving towards his looming deadline. When the action finally resumes, it’s messy and desperate as Brian’s rage and despair must compensate for his inexperience. There are some cool gunfights with cars, facing off against a lot of gangbangers with terrible aim. (Shoot the tires! Anyone!) Though there’s something lacking in these battles and it’s difficult to determine if it’s the camera positioning, editing, level of risk or choreography, but there’s something preventing the viewer from becoming fully immersed in the mayhem. Nonetheless, even a substandard Woo film is still better than some other mediocre action pictures.

Director: John Woo
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Kid Cudi

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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