In my review of No One Will Save You
, I said, “A near-silent movie just doesn’t happen these days.” Who knew that 2023 would bring TWO near-silent releases, with one of them being action grandmaster John Woo’s return to American cinemas after a 20-year absence? Silent Night
is a bit of a departure from Woo’s well-known “heroic bloodshed” pictures, which feature thick personalities and driving dialogue beats that starkly define our heroes and villains between high-flying gun battles and balletic action sequences. Here, Robert Archer Lynn’s script asks Woo to go completely lean, relying only on visual performances, kinetic camerawork, and blowout set pieces.
And you know what? Without the burden of dialogue and having to lay bare every single emotion our leads are feeling, Woo’s given the opportunity to get straight to business, with a single tragedy defining every character’s arc and becoming the thread which steadily draws them together. Fans will be familiar with Silent Night
‘s premise – a father hunts down those responsible for his son’s death – but will also be blown away by Woo’s sharp storytelling, regardless of the lack of spoken dialogue.
Most of our time is spent alongside Brian Godlock (Joel Kinnaman), who gives himself a year to prepare to go after the gangbangers responsible for his son’s accidental death (he catches a stray bullet). There’s one in particular – Playa (Harold Torres) – who shoots Brian in the throat, thus necessitating this film’s speechless conceit. It’s an easy setup with emotional stakes baked almost instantly into this film’s DNA, and it’s one that doesn’t require a lot of the usual action movie adornments. No witty repartee, no self-confidence speeches, not even a jovial rapport with Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi’s police detective Dennis Vassel – we see the impact the loss of Brian’s son has on him immediately and without having to turn to “telling” instead of “showing.” It’s a fairly realistic film, notably through how Brian pushes wife Saya (Catalina Sandino Moreno) away, first through his alcoholism and withdrawal from their life together, then later through his methodical preparations that don’t include her at all. Further on, there’s a moment that starts the third act where all of Brian’s body conditioning, firearms and close combat training, and rendition techniques are trotted out for the first time, and we see the difference between planning for actions like this and actually carrying them out. Not everything’s going to go right, no matter how much Brian has built up the notion that he’s going to be Mr. Death Wish Charlie Bronson, and the amateurish bent of this scene nails the dichotomy that exists when the hunted turns themselves into the hunter.
This scene alone is a direct repudiation of those old Charles Atlas comic book ads from back in the day – you know, where the weakling builds himself up to take on the local beach bully and instantly earns admiration from the girls when he does so. It’s a fantastically humanizing sequence, one which casts the seed of doubt in our minds and makes us worry that Brian might fail. Call me sadistic, but I love that Lynn’s script allowed for the fact that Brian’s no Superman or John Wick. After the marshmallow-to-ripped-physique montages of Brian doing harsh kettlebell exercises, live-fire training, and knife combat practice, it was satisfying to see him screw up, to give us a certain type of fear that’s long been missing in these kinds of movies.
Human moments. That’s where Lynn’s script and Woo’s direction make Silent Night a truly memorable, lasting experience. We care that Brian and Saya’s son has been unexpectedly ripped from them, but there’s also something vital to watching the two of them deal with their grief in their own separate ways, even if it divides them incurably. Woo makes the most of his visual space, connecting the two grieving parents by single-take shots featuring one of them at the head of the shot and the other at the tail. But even those shots start to come at a premium the further Brian heads into isolation without reaching back to Saya.
Joel Kinnaman has the chops to carry Silent Night
without uttering a word, capable of letting us feel his confusion, anger, hate, and wary focus throughout. He also makes us feel the torture of slowly replacing Brian’s love for Saya with his hatred for Playa. It’s not an easy decision Brian has to make, and Kinnaman’s nuanced performance gives us tangible shades of grief, despair, and hope to guide us through Brian’s mind. Let’s not forget the physical hardening that goes hand-in-hand with the mental hardening; Kinnaman’s transformation from plain to whipcord is worth at least a mention, definitely going hard and committing to the training required for a role like this.
But it’s John Woo who gives Silent Night its straightforward, no-nonsense tone, using Kinnaman to hone it into a sharpened knife blade that cuts decisively and without conscience. Woo dispenses with pleasantries, giving a humanizing edge despite the standard revenge motif. All too often, we see films about trained assassins who step in and out of the shadows to get the job done; but by giving us a character without any kind of foundational training and allowing shortcomings to have consequences, we have a different kind of action picture on our hands. Between’s Woo’s legendary acuity for action staging, Robert Archer Lynn’s down-to-earth setups, and Joel Kinnaman’s dedicated performance, Silent Night earns high marks for returning the human factor to this genre, long popular for seemingly-invincible characters. In making Brian decidedly not invincible, a monkey wrench gets thrown into all of our preconceived notions and energizes this movie with the fear that comes from a regular guy wading into territory he should’ve left alone.